Failed GOP candidates become 2012 gatekeepers in Iowa, New Hampshire

Republican presidential hopefuls looking for an in with conservatives in Iowa and New Hampshire might want to have Republicans Bob Vander Plaats and Ovide Lamontagne on speed dial.

After coming up short in the 2010 Republican primaries, both men are positioning themselves as gatekeepers to key swaths of conservative voters in their respective states.

"We intend to set the standard in New Hampshire for who we think is the most conservative candidate who can win," Lamontagne told the Ballot Box.

The Tea Party-backed Republican, who waged a strong primary challenge to Sen.-elect Kelly Ayotte this past fall, has formed a new political action committee named Granite Oath and will host a series of meet-and-greet events at his home for 2012 GOP hopefuls.

Lamontagne's first event will feature former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), and he's in the process of reaching out to other likely candidates on the Republican side.

"We certainly hope candidates will respond and come," said Lamontagne, who impressed New Hampshire political observers with a highly organized Senate bid that attracted grassroots conservatives and Tea Party identifiers in the state.

While not ruling out a future run himself, Lamontagne said he expects his PAC will endorse a GOP candidate before the New Hampshire primary and might even fund TV ads on their behalf.

In Iowa, Vander Plaats, a former gubernatorial contender, is positioning himself much the same way. After losing a GOP primary to Gov. Terry Branstad, Vander Plaats launched a successful campaign to oust three state Supreme Court Justices after they voted to overturn Iowa's gay-marriage ban.

He recently launched The Family Leader, a social conservative organization that he, too, expects will endorse ahead of the Iowa Caucus.

"We plan on playing a major role in the caucuses," Vander Plaats told the Ballot Box. "Our base of support largely consists of pro-family conservatives and we want to make sure we see these candidates up close and hear them first-hand."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke at an event hosted by the group last month.

While Vander Plaats's core of supporters are much more socially conservative than Lamontagne's, the two men share another distinction — they were both shunned by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a rumored 2012 contender herself.

In Iowa's gubernatorial primary, Palin endorsed Branstad. And in New Hampshire, she backed Ayotte.

Both said Palin has some serious work to do in their respective states for Republican voters to take a presidential bid by her seriously.

"She has to come to Iowa and do more than just sign books," said Vander Plaats, who acknowledged the former vice presidential nominee generates "more intrigue" than some of the other contenders.

"What I hear from people is that they really like her, but they just don't know if they can connect the dots to her being president," he said.

In New Hampshire, Palin's already gotten some flak for not visiting the state or being accessible to local party officials and activists. Lamontagne said she can afford to wait "some period of time" given her high profile, but noted he'd like to see her in the state sooner rather than later.

"You can't just run a media campaign," he said. "At some point she has to send some overt signal that she's serious about New Hampshire."