By John Whitesides
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Iowa's moderate Republicans are a small and dispirited bunch, but they could provide a vital boost for Mitt Romney in the state's tight kickoff presidential contest.
While the Republican White House contenders battle for the state's big but badly split bloc of religious conservatives, Iowa's moderates are a forgotten minority who have coalesced around the candidate they consider their only choice: Romney.
But it is uncertain whether they will turn out for him at the caucus votes on January 3, when the state kicks off the Republican nominating fight. After years of retreat and neglect, Iowa's Republican moderates are unreliable caucus-goers.
"We're a dwindling group, an endangered species. A lot of moderates don't go to the caucuses anymore," said Joy Corning, a former Iowa lieutenant governor and state senator who heads a state group of moderate Republicans.
"But the moderates who I know will be there supporting Romney. They see him as more moderate than the other Bible-thumping conservatives, and he could actually win a general election," she said.
A CNN/Time poll on Wednesday showed Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, slightly ahead of rival Ron Paul, a libertarian congressman from Texas.
Conservatives are likely to split their support between Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum in the caucuses vote, handing an advantage to Romney.
Romney is distrusted by many social conservatives who remember his past support for abortion rights and for a Massachusetts healthcare law that was a precursor to President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.
But moderates are drawn by Romney's background in business, his willingness to work with Democrats in Massachusetts and polls that show he would be the party's strongest challenger to Obama.
"He's got the experience, and he's the only one who is electable and can beat President Obama," said Quinn Novak, 63, an unemployed machinist from Cedar Rapids who said he was also backing Romney because he understood what it would take to turn around the economy.
ONE IN FIVE ARE MODERATES
A recent survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers found more than seven of every 10 identified themselves as conservative and 19 percent as moderates, making them a heavily outnumbered but still substantial voting bloc.
"We definitely exist," said Des Moines City Councilwoman Christine Hensley, a self-described Republican moderate who will back Romney. "But sometimes you feel like you're kind of the step-sister."
But the less active nature of the party's moderate wing makes it harder to target them to turn out for caucuses that are often dominated by the candidates with the most enthusiastic and organized supporters.
"If centrists show up at the caucuses, Romney could win," said Maggie Tinsman, an 18-year state senator who lost a Republican primary to a more conservative challenger in 2006. "But they haven't been as engaged in recent years."
Social and religious conservatives turned out in droves to propel Baptist minister and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to a win over Romney in the 2008 caucuses.
Six of every 10 Republican participants in Iowa that year said they were born-again or evangelical Christians
Those religious conservatives have largely taken over the state party machinery in Iowa, and led a voter drive in 2010 that removed three Supreme Court justices from the bench in a fight over gay marriage.
"Are they so disenchanted that they have decided they won't go to the caucus?" Mary Kramer, a former president of the Iowa state Senate who is backing Romney, said of moderates. "That is what worries me."
A Romney campaign official said his staff was identifying supporters in Iowa, making sure they knew where to go for the caucuses in districts throughout the state and would turn out a team of volunteers to help them get there.
SIGNS OF CHANGE
Iowa's ideological shift is similar to a decades-long turn to the right by national Republicans which has thinned the ranks of socially moderate Republicans in Congress.
But Iowa moderates see signs of change. Governor Terry Branstad, a conservative who did not campaign on social or religious themes, beat Christian leader Bob Vander Plaats in the 2010 Republican primary in what some analysts said was a sign evangelicals might be losing some of their political clout.
This year's unrelenting campaign focus on the economy and jobs might also minimize the impact of social issues. Romney has made the economy the main plank of his campaign and his standard stump speech is an attack on Obama's economic stewardship.
Finding a cure for the ailing economy tops the list of concerns for Iowans as it does nationally, and social issues slide well down the list of importance in most Iowa polls.
"Issues about reducing government spending, creating jobs - these are the things that really best reflect the mood of caucus-goers this season," said pollster Ann Selzer.
Former Iowa Governor Robert Ray, a fixture of the state's moderate Republican establishment during his time in office from 1969 to 1983, endorsed Romney earlier this month and said he hoped his nomination could unite the party's competing wings.
The inability of Iowa's religious conservatives to rally around a single candidate could depress their caucus attendance.
"Turnout among social conservatives will be much lower than 2008, and that could increase the impact of moderates who will almost certainly be Romney people," said Doug Gross, Romney's state chairman in 2008, who is unaffiliated in this cycle.
(Additional reporting by Sam Youngman; Editing by Alistair Bell and Todd Eastham)