updated 7/13/2007 7:40:15 AM ET 2007-07-13T11:40:15

Republican presidential hopeful Sam Brownback is counting on his conservative credentials and a Midwest bond to lift his candidacy in Iowa.

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The Kansas senator is making some inroads.

Although far behind in the polls and fundraising, Brownback has stuck to a well-honed strategy, waging a classic grass-roots campaign away from the glare of the media spotlight by mingling with activists in living rooms, parks and churches. He’s made repeated trips from his neighboring state to campaign in Iowa, where he underscores his cultural ties.

“Sam Brownback is working very hard and he’s participating in the Iowa process the proper way and he seems to be having some success,” said former Iowa Republican Chairman Richard Schwarm, who is backing Mitt Romney. “He is absolutely following the successful method that other candidates have used in the past.”

As the 50-year-old Brownback puts it repeatedly on the campaign trail, “I guess that’s what I learned growing up on a farm. You get up early, you work hard and you go to bed tired.”

Lots of work left
Despite the attention Brownback has lavished on Iowa, he still has plenty of work ahead.

Most polls in the state show Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani atop the field of GOP contenders. Both have far more money and name recognition than Brownback.

But Brownback has held tirelessly to a strategy of focusing on social and religious conservatives, who play an influential role in the caucuses. In seeking their support, Brownback has increasingly criticized the former Massachusetts governor for shifting his views on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

“He’s changed on a number of these issues over a period of time and at different times,” Brownback said. “I’m laying out a consistent message and I think people should know what has been different and where I have been on these issues.”

Brownback sharpened his rhetoric recently, with his campaign jokingly suggesting a word “Mitt-amorphasis” be added to the dictionary to reflect Romney’s shifting views. That drew a response from the Romney campaign, which labeled Romney “firmly pro-life” and decried campaigns that “distort the records of others.”

Brownback, however, recently found himself scrambling to explain his own change of heart on one of the most volatile issues of the 2008 campaign: immigration. He voted for and against an immigration bill backed by President Bush that would have legalized millions of unlawful immigrants, saying he wanted to show his support for reform but not the bill. The Senate killed the bill last month.

On Friday, Brownback will begin a weekend tour of Iowa accompanied by the brother of the late Terri Schiavo, who was in a permanent vegetative state for 15 years before dying in 2005 after her feeding tube was removed. Her case sparked a firestorm over end-of-life issues and energized religious conservatives.

Brownback also recently announced the backing of more than 50 evangelical leaders in Iowa, headed by influential conservative Chuck Hurley.

“I don’t want to overstate it, but some of these are pretty well-known in their faith circles,” Hurley said.

‘Saying all the right things’
Other candidates, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also are seeking the support of social and religious conservatives, but Brownback has been the most persistent in Iowa.

“He is going to all the right places and saying all the right things,” said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa.

And veteran activist Bob Haus noted, “He’s putting some good old Kansas shoe leather into the state.”

A Midwest connection worked in 1988 for Dick Gephardt, the Missouri Democratic congressman who won the Iowa caucuses that year in his first presidential bid. His campaign struggled financially and he dropped out of the race in March. In 2004, Gephardt was counting on Iowa but finished fourth in the caucuses, effectively ending his bid.

David Roederer, a veteran strategist who backs Arizona Sen. John McCain, said Brownback could be making some progress with conservatives wary of Romney.

“From what I can see, he is chipping away at some of the social conservatives that Mitt Romney was able to pick up before a lot of people knew about his various positions,” Roederer said.

Will Brownback become a major national player?
Far more delicate is the issue of Romney’s Mormon faith. Last month, an aide to Brownback was reprimanded for sending an e-mail to Iowa Republican leaders in an apparent attempt to draw unfavorable scrutiny to Romney’s religion. Brownback apologized.

Brownback figures that if he campaigns effectively in Iowa, does well in next month’s straw poll in Ames and finishes better than expected in the caucuses, he could burst onto the scene and become a major player.

“The national media has put a ceiling on who they will cover and I haven’t cracked through that ceiling yet,” said Brownback. “If we can do well in some of these early contests and the early primary states, we can crack through that ceiling.”

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