Gov. Terry Branstad urged Republican presidential candidates Monday to participate in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, saying the state party covers the "full spectrum" of views and isn't dominated by evangelical Christians.
The call Branstad put out at his weekly news conference came in response to a weekend commentary published in the New Hampshire Union Leader by former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen. He claims the Iowa party has become so dominated by evangelicals that some potential candidates will be tempted to largely skip the state.
Branstad, who defeated Republican Bob Vander Plaats, a leading voice of the evangelical movement, to win the Republican nomination for governor last year, disagreed.
"Iowa is a full spectrum state," said Branstad, who's conservative but campaigned mainly on economic issues. "The primary election I won last year proves that."
Branstad said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's announcement that he wouldn't seek the Republican nomination has made the Iowa race even more open. Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008 with strong backing from social conservatives and 35 percent of the vote. Branstad said that third of the party is now up for grabs, and he expected other candidates to capitalize on that.
"This is a state where you can effectively launch a campaign and it's not too late," he said. "I think you're going to see a lot of activity. I think you're going to see a deluge of candidates."
Cullen's commentary, reprinted in the Des Moines Sunday Register, reflected in part long-standing differences between activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, which has long held the nation's first presidential primary. Whereas evangelicals have steadily gained influence in Iowa and stressed social issues, the majority of Republicans in New Hampshire have kept the focus more on fiscal matters.
The 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination showed that split, as Huckabee won in Iowa but barely competed in New Hampshire. Arizona Sen. John McCain won the New Hampshire primary after finishing fourth in the Iowa caucuses.
In his article, Cullen also noted a poll released in April that showed many Iowa Republicans questioned President Barack Obama's citizenship, writing that "it's hard to talk about real issues when three quarters of the audience wears tinfoil hats."
He didn't back off his comments Monday, saying again he believed the state party was dominated by evangelicals focused on electing social conservatives.
"It's been very clear for quite a while that Iowa Republicans are not open to a broad array of candidates," Cullen said in a telephone interview.
Former Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Richard Schwarm agreed that evangelicals play a heavy role in Iowa's Republican politics, noting that polls indicate about 60 percent of those who showed up for the 2008 GOP caucuses identified themselves as evangelicals. He added, though, that the evangelical vote could be divided.
"I think you're going to have three or four social conservatives who are going to split up that vote," Schwarm said. "There are a lot of folks in Iowa who are not evangelicals. There are a lot of people who are looking for someone who will deal with the debt and the deficit."
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, also denied that evangelicals cared only about social issues and said he expected candidates to campaign in his state.
"I think it's kind of an insult to Iowa if candidates skip Iowa," Scheffler said. "Most people I know are concerned about social issues, but they're also concerned about economic issues."
Republican strategist Bob Haus, an Iowa native who has worked on a number of presidential campaigns, including actor Fred Thompson's in 2008, said evangelicals are important to the Republican party in Iowa but they don't define it.
"They are a good, solid chunk of the electorate," he said, "but they are not a block that moves in mass."