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In Iowa, Walker Faces Major Challenges

influential Iowa conservative activists are not coalescing around Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, even as he leads in polls of Iowa Republicans.

DES MOINES -- Iowa's powerful bloc of evangelical Christians and very conservative activists are so far not uniting around Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the front-runner here, with some choosing other candidates and most opting not to endorse anyone in the early stages of the campaign.

Walker seems an obvious candidate for Iowa’s conservatives to back: a record in nearby Wisconsin of moves like limiting the power of labor unions and cutting funds to Planned Parenthood, an affinity for talking about his personal religious faith, and three electoral victories in a traditionally blue state. He is well-positioned to run to the right of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of whom have been supporters of creating a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, an idea opposed by many conservatives in Iowa. And Walker has the lead in most early polls of Republican voters in Iowa.

But many key activists here are holding back their endorsements for now, wanting to meet one-on-one with Walker and other GOP candidates and also closely scrutinize their records. Other influential figures among Iowa’s blocs of evangelical Christians and very conservative Republicans are already backing other candidates over Walker, particularly ex-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

For Walker, the competitive environment means he will have the complicated challenge of trying to win over very conservative voters in Iowa who are considering Cruz and Huckabee, while at the same time trying to woo more moderate Republicans here who might otherwise back Bush or Rubio.

“Cruz can win,” said Jan Mickelson, a popular conservative radio talk show host in Des Moines who has already interviewed several of the GOP candidates.

He added, “Walker is going to have to step up really fast, because other people are gaining ground, simply because they’re spending time here.”

Bob Vander Plaats, the religious conservative who chaired Huckabee’s successful Iowa campaign in 2008 and then was a key backer of Santorum in 2012, said he had some reservations about Walker.

“There’s some cause for pause among some conservatives, because of the Court comment,” Vander Plaats said. He was referring to a remark Walker made last year after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a federal district court’s decision to strike down Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage ban.

“For us, it’s over in Wisconsin,” Walker said back then of the Supreme Court’s move, which in effect legalized gay marriage in the state. His comments were interpreted as a concession to same-sex marriage proponents, even though Walker has said his personal belief is marriage is between a man and a woman.

Vander Plaats said Walker’s refusal to strongly condemn the decision would “cause him some heartburn,” with Iowa evangelical Christians.

Walker, even though he not yet officially announced his candidacy, has already made clear he will look to use a win in Iowa as a springboard to the GOP nomination. Unlike Bush and Rubio, Walker has attended most of the high-profile forums party activists in Iowa have organized this year.

At the Lincoln Day Dinner here on Saturday, Walker hosted a reception for party activists where they could get cheese from the Badger State. The candidate himself was wearing an apron.

In meetings with GOP activists, Walker pledges that if he win runs and becomes the party’s nominee, he will be able to carry Midwestern states like Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin in the general election. So winning the primary here is critical for Walker as a show of his appeal in this region.

So far, Iowa Republicans have warmed to him. Political veterans in in the state, even from rival campaigns, agree the Wisconsin governor is among the favorites to win the caucuses.

“Walker has been the Republican frontrunner in the state,” said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.

But winning over key activists early in the process is important in Iowa, even for a candidate with an advantage in early polling. Iowans who endorse candidates early tend to stay with them through the process, and the first supporters help recruit others to back a presidential hopeful.

Walker has already won endorsements from key figures in Iowa politics, like Chad Airhart, the recorder in Dallas County who backed Mitt Romney in 2012. But Cruz has the support of former Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, while Walt Rogers, a leader in the Iowa State House, is backing Santorum.

The reluctance to back Walker, at least this early in the race, from some conservatives in Iowa is in part a reflection of the Republican Party primary process. For major campaign donors and other influential Republicans outside of Iowa, there is an incentive to line up early behind the candidate most likely to win, because that person will likely reward early contributors by tapping them to posts like ambassadorships. This partly explains why so many wealthy GOP donors have already given more than $100,000 to Bush, who is considered one of the most likely candidates to win.

But in Iowa, the incentives are much different. Most influential GOP figures here will not get key posts in Washington or abroad in a Republican presidential administration.

For some Republican activists in Iowa, the caucuses are a way to make money, so they will back a candidate who will add them to their payroll in some way, such as making them an informal campaign adviser. And remaining undecided in the early rounds of the campaign allows Republicans in Iowa to meet and be courted by all of the candidates, something they enjoy.

At the Lincoln dinner here, many Iowa Republicans took pictures with several of the candidates, an opportunity most American voters will not have.

But for Walker, this reluctance of key activists to endorse early is a danger. Huckabee in 2008 and then Santorum four years later won here in part because uncommitted activists opted to endorse them in the last few weeks before the caucuses, creating a kind of groundswell. Walker could be left in the position of Mitt Romney, the more traditional candidate who did not excite the most conservative Iowa Republicans enough and lost in both 2008 and 2012.

Ultimately though, Walker could overcome this early challenge. He is expected to formally start his campaign in June and make many more stops in Iowa. That could push other influential figures in the party toward him.

And Walker may not need much support from very conservative Republicans to win the caucuses. Romney won about a quarter of the vote here in both 2008 and 2012 by wooing more moderate Republicans in urban areas like Des Moines, and Walker is showing some early signs of appeal to some of those voters as well.