Iowa conservatives see Romney snub

Amid growing signs Mitt Romney could win the Iowa caucuses, conservatives there are complaining he’s snubbing them – even though he spent Thursday in the state.

“We’ve done everything we can to reach out to the campaign and they’ve largely ignored us,” said Steve Scheffler, a prominent socially conservative Iowa activist and head of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.

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His group is hosting a forum this Saturday, and Scheffler said that more than 800 participants have already been confirmed. Most of the GOP candidates – but not Romney – have said they’ll attend.

Scheffler pointed out that Romney had attended the group’s dinner four years ago, and warned that the former Massachusetts governor risks alienating the party activists who do much of the legwork to turn out voters ahead of elections.

And members of the influential voting bloc, whose divisions may lead to Romney winning the state’s contest, say if the former Massachusetts governor ends up the Republican nominee, they may not help him in the general election.

“If he’s the nominee and the election’s close, and let’s face it, it’s going to be close, and he won’t be here and engaged with people it’ll be more challenging for him to get people to go door to door and make phone calls,” Scheffler said.

Evangelical voters are approximately 60 percent of GOP caucus participants and while the split conservative field means Romney could win the state without much support from them, they could play a major role in the general election. In the last 10 presidential elections, Iowa has had an even split – going Democratic five times and Republican five times.

Romney’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But they have long sought to downplay expectations in Iowa even though there are signs indicating they’re taking more of an interest after an NBC News poll earlier this month showed Romney in the lead. Anne Romney did a three-day swing there last week and Romney returned to the state for the first time since August on Thursday.

But his visit was to areas where he did well in 2008 and his meetings were with business leaders – not social conservative activists. He’s skipped many of the big Republican events around the state – like the August Ames Straw poll – and he’s also the only candidate who’s not said whether he’ll attend a major Republican Party dinner on Nov. 4 and another large confab of social conservatives the weekend before Thanksgiving.

The former governor has focused much of his time in New Hampshire and is spending a lot less time and money in Iowa than he did four years ago when he spent millions and finished in a disappointing second place.

Few Republicans in the state fault him for trying to downplay expectations but they are growing frustrated with their limited access to him on his rare visits.

Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party, said that when he asks many conservatives what they will do if Romney is the nominee, “they groan. They’re not going to abandon the GOP but these are the folks who make phone calls, knock on doors, make the victory programs run.

“The problem is that how [Romney] ran in 2008 and how he’s running in 2012 is totally different, and it reconfirms people’s fears that the things Romney said, that he was pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, aren’t really true because he seems afraid to talk to them,” Robinson said. “This notion that we have a candidate who doesn’t want to do much to campaign here is what people are bothered by… and I’m afraid that it could have an impact on the general election because he’s done nothing to reach out to those people who are cool to him.”

Tim Albrecht, the communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), agreed that Romney was not engaging as often with social conservatives but noted the former governor didn’t need to in order to win the Iowa caucuses.

“Rather than focusing on an event where half a dozen of his opponents will show up, Gov. Romney has decided to focus more on economics and jobs-focused events,” said Albrecht. “He’s really tailoring his message to economic and fiscally minded conservatives here, and disaffected independents and Democrats.”

Albrecht said it was “wildly premature” to speculate about the general election at this point but predicted Republican activists were unlikely to sit at home because of a perceived snub rather than go out and work hard to defeat Obama, who many of them hate.

As evidence, Albrecht pointed his boss’s easy general election victory in 2010 after running a tough and contentious primary against Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa’s top social conservative voice.

Vander Plaats, who also chaired Mike Huckabee’s successful 2008 Iowa campaign, is the lead organizer for the pre-Thanksgiving event that is expected to draw roughly 1,500 conservatives.

He said he had repeatedly reached out to Romney’s campaign but had gotten little in response — and promised to let his supporters know about Romney’s attitude.

“We’ll make it very clear to our attendees and viewers across the country that Romney was invited to be here, I’ll make sure every 30 minutes we mention it or have an advertisement about it and we may have an empty chair for him,” he said. “If Romney becomes the nominee everyone knows Iowa is a swing state that will be determined by our base coming out, and if our base stays home he’s not going to win.”