Interest Groups, Presidential Candidates Use Iowa For Political Gains

This story was written by Dean Treftz, The Daily Iowan
Long-shot presidential-nomination hopefuls come to Iowa with dreams of a Hawkeye State springboard to the White House. Many groups pushing obscure agendas can see Iowa as the road to the mainstream.

"Obviously, Iowa is the political center of the universe right now," said Todd Versteegh, the state field director for Americans for Fair Taxation. The group, more commonly known as FairTax.org, is one of the more visible advocacy groups so far in the caucus campaign.

Iowa can be instrumental for interest groups, such as FairTax.org, which may not want or be able to spend millions on national television ads.

"Certainly, if you're looking for media, you don't have to buy, you can go to [campaign] events," said University of Iowa political science associate professor Tim Hagle.

Iowa allows groups to get their position recognized with just a couple of organizers on the ground, he said.

Peggy Huppert, the executive director of Caucus for Priorities, said Iowa helped push cutting Pentagon spending into the mainstream.

When her group decided to send out questionnaires that included asking candidates to agree with their premise there is wasteful Pentagon spending that could be cut, "a lot of political pundits laughed," Huppert said. Each of the Democrats agreed, and most specified which programs they would cut.

The Iowa arm of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, Huppert's organization has attended 560 candidate events since mid-January. Its pie-chart car magnets have become a common sight in Democratic event parking lots.

"The reason [the national organization] decided to have staff on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire is the reason everyone does - it's that you have a chance to talk to candidates," Huppert said.

Both Huppert and Versteegh emphasized that their organizations were nonpartisan but admitted being better received by Democratic and Republican candidates respectively. As tax-exempt nonprofits, designated 501c4s, neither can push for or against a candidate.

FairTax.org, which argues for scrapping the federal income tax in favor of a retail-consumption tax, helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee finish second in Ames' Straw Poll, raising his profile. FairTax.org has since reduced its presence in Iowa; Versteegh is the only remaining full-time employee in the state.

However, profile-raising doesn't come cheap. FairTax.org spent roughly $150,000 at the Straw Poll -- part of which paid for a rented Ferris wheel -- and Huppert estimates Caucus for Priorities has spent around $800,000 in Iowa.

"The alternative is to go out and spend tens of millions of dollars on a national advertising campaign," said Brian Kennedy, a Davenport-based Republican who advises FairTax.org.

Kennedy saw the Straw Poll and an early August Republican debate in Des Moines in which moderator George Stephanopoulos asked the candidates about a sales tax as indicators of success.

"His producers were seeing enough activity in Iowa to say, Let's put a question in the debate about the FairTax.org,'" Kennedy said.

Both FairTax.org and Caucus for Priorities have now shifted toward getting voters to caucus based on their respective issues.

Huppert said her group has recently ended its campaign of "bird-dogging" candidates and now will focus on teaching younger supporters how to caucus.

FairTax.org's Iowa operation now will work with volunteers to, among other things, get sales tax resolutions offered at local caucuses.

Kennedy said that much of the national organization's emphasis is now on states that come after Iowa and New Hampshire "to be ready when the media gets there."
© 2007 The Daily Iowan via U-WIRE

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