DES MOINES, Iowa — A run for the White House has long meant enduring icy days campaigning in Iowa for the contest that starts the presidential election calendar. But this winter fewer candidates have braved the Midwestern chill. And that has left some wondering if the Iowa Republican party's shift to the right is scaring off some hopefuls and making the Iowa caucuses less competitive -- and less important.
In the last few months, a handful of prospective candidates for the GOP nomination in 2012 have visited the state -- including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But the visits have been less frequent than in the past, and other traditional campaign-building efforts have lagged.
Notably absent has been former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has led the field of GOP prospects in early polling. Also unseen has been Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who hasn't announced his intentions but who spoke last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.
Some strategists wonder whether the more moderate of the approximately dozen contenders may now be adopting the lesson of John McCain, who largely skipped the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and still was able to lock up the Republican Party's nomination in other states.
"Other people may be making that decision," said Mark Salter, a top aide in McCain's campaign. Iowa's dominant Republicans are now "very socially conservative," he said. Although McCain had a national following, many Iowa Republicans questioned his earlier support for immigration reform and his willingness to work with Democrats.
Other factors may help explain the limited activity. Many strategists thought the 2008 race began too early. And big names like Romney don't need to be introduced to the Iowa electorate. The state does remain a prominent platform for the most socially conservative Republican candidates, and campaigning will become more intense later in the year as the February 6, 2011, caucus date draws closer. But some question whether a victory in Iowa now could be hollow if more moderate candidates limit their campaigning, making it a contest only of the most conservative politicians.
"Does the Iowa caucus have the same punch it once had?" Salter said. "Probably not."
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said if Romney runs in 2012, he'll take a different approach than in 2008, when he visited often, spent $10 million and at one point had 200 staffers in the state, but lost badly. "I would not look for Mitt to follow that pattern again," said Fehrnstrom, who declined to elaborate on why Romney would retool his strategy.
Evangelical Christians have long been an important portion of the GOP vote in the caucuses. Back as far as 1988, they were credited with televangelist Pat Robertson's surprising second-place caucus finish, behind eventual nominee George H.W. Bush.
But religious conservatives now dominate the Republican Party in Iowa, holding leadership positions and making up the bulk of caucus voters. "There's no question that evangelicals are the largest single block in the party," said former Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Richard Schwarm.
For that reason, among others, Pawlenty, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum appear to be betting heavily on Iowa. Santorum is believed to be the only potential Republican candidate who has hired staffers in Iowa, but Pawlenty has been the most aggressive in the state, making repeated visits and emphasizing that his faith as an evangelical Christian is central to his life. Bachmann has made one visit, and plans to return in April. All three talk frequently of their faith and refer to it as the foundation of their conservative philosophies.
The fact that the competition is more limited, though, eases the pressure on any candidate to spend as much time and money here early. That's a dramatic shift from 2008, when Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, and then Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback returned repeatedly at this time of year to meet with activists and talk with local Republican politicians.
Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad who worked on Romney's campaign, said Romney can expect to appeal to "certain elements" within the state's GOP. "He fits in very well with those who want an expertise in business with executive experience in government," said Albrecht. In 2008, he finished behind Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist Minister.
Daniels could face skepticism because of statements about the need to focus on the country's economic problems rather than social issues. About his plans for 2012, said Daniels spokeswoman Jane Jankowski, "He'll make that decision sometime soon," she said.
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn insisted the state is still important, if maybe not as essential. "I don't think you can totally skip Iowa," he said.