Iowa groups that oppose same-sex marriage are riding high after victories in last fall's midterm elections. They're hoping that momentum will help them influence the selection of the Republican candidate who will take on President Barack Obama.
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be back in Iowa Monday for what's called a "presidential forum" sponsored by a group called the "Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition."
The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition invited candidates to its presidential forum with this reminder: In 2008, 60 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers claimed to be evangelical Christians. In the invitation, the coalition's president, Steve Scheffler, said there would be no better opportunity to meet those people than the forum.
"Naturally they're interested in social issues, but they're also interested in fiscal restraint," Scheffler said.
Scheffler claims his group distributed hundreds of thousands of voter guides during the midterm elections and contacted more than a half-million Iowa voters. He takes partial credit for GOP victories last fall in all three branches of Iowa's government.
Republicans won back the governor's office, the Iowa House, and, in their biggest victory, social conservatives voted to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices because of their decision allowing same-sex marriage.
Scheffler said concern about social issues such as marriage and abortion should not be considered separate from discussion of economic issues.
"I think they go hand-in-hand," Scheffler said.
Pawlenty last appeared in Iowa in early February on behalf of another social conservative group — the Iowa Family Leader. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann will appear at a Family Leader event next month.
Iowa Family Leader President Bob Vanderplaats led the campaign against the Supreme Court justices. After the election, Vanderplaats got the top job at the Family Leader with the expressed intention of being a player in 2012 presidential politics.
"There's no doubt that the marriage issue is going to be an issue in the state of Iowa in regards to the Iowa caucuses," Vanderplaats said.
Vanderplaats said he thinks opposition to same-sex marriage will play nationally in next year's presidential race as well. And Vanderplaats thinks the issue will be even bigger than it otherwise would have thanks to the Obama Administration's recent determination that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. For 15 years the act has defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.
"Marriage is definitely a core value issue," Vanderplaats said. "I think what Iowans and ... conservatives across the country, are going to look at is, if you're willing to compromise or negotiate a core value away like obviously President Obama is, then you're probably willing to negotiate or compromise any other value."
Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said Vanderplaats and other Iowa social conservative leaders have become kingmakers in Iowa Republican politics. And Schmidt agrees the same-sex marriage issue that helped fuel GOP momentum in Iowa in 2010 will play nationally in 2012.
"Gay marriage is a very safe issue for Republicans to oppose in any state in the country," Schmidt said. "The country is still not comfortable with a lot of gay rights, and gay marriage is the match that lights their discomfort with homosexuality."
Jeff Kaufmann, a member of the new Republican majority in the Iowa House, supports the social conservatives, but also cautions that presidential candidates who overemphasize social issues in a grab for votes in Iowa may jeopardize their national prospects.
"If the goal is to win Iowa as a launching pad to win other states ... I don't think it would lead to a nomination," Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee found that out in 2008, when he won the Iowa caucuses but Sen. John McCain won the nomination.