DES MOINES, IOWA — Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee walked into a small ballroom in the Des Moines Airport Holiday Inn and looked around for hands to shake. There was some awkwardness as he tried to determine who wanted to a photo with him rather than the event's other guests, TLC reality show stars Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar.
Huckabee’s no stranger here in Iowa: He won the 2008 Iowa Caucuses and has spent the past eight years hosting a nationally broadcast Fox News show. But that doesn’t mean he has the votes to make a potential 2016 presidential run feasible. That's why he and other social conservatives — including officially declared Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, former Republican contender Rick Santorum, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — are here, wooing Iowa conservatives 578 days before Election Day 2016.
“In Iowa, they view this is as a courtship,” Iowa social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats told msnbc. Thursday starts with an event hosted by Homeschool Iowa, a group of the state's Christian homeschool educators. In the evening, Vander Plaats' Family Leader group will hold a summit that constitutes a “first or second date,” he said.
Iowa’s social conservatives — and in particular homeschoolers — are a powerful voice in the first-in-the-nation caucuses, helping to give credibility to potential candidates like Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on a national scale. And though both men, former presidential contenders, lost in more moderate states in the past, Vander Plaats said he and his political allies believe that if they can just mobilize evangelicals and social conservatives, a truly far-right candidate can win.
“Yes, we want a candidate who can win Ohio, but we do not want to double down on a losing strategy. Year after year, they say if you nominate the most moderate guy, you’ll win, but we don’t have President McCain or President Romney,” Vander Plaats said. “If we nominate a moderate, I [think] Hillary Clinton and the Democrats will be the president.”
The one declared and three possible candidates attending the Homeschool Iowa town hall asserted their über-conservatism, at times working to paint themselves as more successfully conservative than their peers. Nonetheless, the four didn't disagree on any specific issue.
Cruz called school choice “the civil rights issue” of the century and likened the outrage over controversial religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas to “jihad.”
“I took on partial birth abortion,” bragged Santorum. “Every abortion bill that came through the United States Senate? I was on it. Every marriage bill, I was on it. Every religious liberty bill, I was on it.”
Huckabee tried to portray himself as an effective conservative: “I was governor in the most Democratic state in America [in the '90s] … But for 10 and a half years I served as governor and never got less than 92% of my legislative package done,” he said. “Including that partial birth abortion [ban].”
Jindal jumped into the conservative pool, too. “Our problem in losing previous election wasn’t that we weren’t too conservative, it’s that we weren’t sincerely conservative,” he said. “There are a lot of politicians evolving their views on marriage, looking at those polls, saying I’m changing this way or that. I’m proud to say I’m not evolving: My Christian views are that marriage is a man and a woman and that’s not going to change.”
The four politicos — who will likely run far to the right against opponents like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and even Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — embraced the idea that they're far from the kind of candidate the establishment GOP will embrace.
"If you hear the term electability out of anybody's mouths, run for the hills," Santorum said.
Many of the likely candidates also sought to highlight their ties to homeschoolers, who make up a particularly valuable group of voters here in Iowa because they're active volunteers: Santorum boasted 19 years of homeschooling his own children. Jindal said he'd seen "firsthand" the success of homeschooling in a senior staffer who'd been homeschooled himself. Huckabee reminded the crowd he'd appointed the first-ever homeschooler to a state board of education.
Despite their efforts — and some big cheers from the crowd — the group didn't appear to favor one of the men over the others.
"They’re probably going to not start breaking or making their decisions till late," Vander Plaats predicted. "Iowans typically break late, they don’t break early."