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By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

DES MOINES, Iowa — For more than 40 years, Iowa voters have played a vital role in picking the nation’s president, culling the field of hopefuls and helping launch a fortunate handful all the way to the White House.

For about 35 of those years, Iowa has been the target of jealousy and scorn, mainly from outsiders who say the state, the first to vote in the presidential contest, is too white and too rural; that its caucuses, precinct-level meetings of party faithful, are too quirky and too exclusionary to play such a key role in the nominating process.

Now, a swelling chorus of critics is mounting a fresh challenge to Iowa’s privileged role, targeting especially the August straw poll held the year before the election, which traditionally established the Republican Party front-runner. Increasingly, critics say, the informal balloting has proved a meaningless and costly diversion of time and money. Some GOP strategists are urging candidates to think hard before coming to Iowa at all.

“A monster has been created,” said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan election analyst once so enamored of the caucuses he brought his family here for a politically themed summer vacation. He points to the growing influence of interest groups that press their agendas at the expense of what used to be a more neighbor-to-neighbor style of campaigning.

“The process has become increasingly contrived and manipulated, losing its effectiveness of being a surrogate for voters across the country” Cook said.

For Republicans, the last two elections have given further reason to gripe. The caucus winners, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, were favorites of Christian conservatives but came nowhere close to capturing their party’s nomination. More embarrassing, problems with the 2012 count resulted in the wrong candidate, Mitt Romney, initially being declared the GOP winner. (The tally was fixed about two weeks later.)

In response, establishment Republicans, including the governor, have called for scrapping the summer straw poll — a lucrative franchise for the state party, as candidates pay handsomely to compete — and have moved to assert greater control over the party-run caucuses. (The winner of the 2011 poll was Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who finished sixth in the real Iowa balloting and quit the presidential race the next day.)

“I want to preserve the Iowa caucuses,” Gov. Terry Branstad said bluntly in an interview in his ceremonial office, surrounded by portraits and busts of his predecessors — even if that means ending the straw poll and fighting the leadership of the state Republican Party.

“I think it’s a great event,” countered A.J. Spiker, chairman of the Iowa GOP, who said it should be up to candidates to choose whether to participate in the Ames straw poll. “It’s really a good kickoff to the caucus season.”

Iowa’s starting role on the campaign calendar appears safe for now. Republicans have once more placed the caucuses at the head of the nominating calendar, to be followed by New Hampshire’s traditional leadoff primary. Democrats are expected to follow suit. President Barack Obama’s 2008 caucus win helped send him to the White House, and he carried the state twice in the general election, so there is no clamor to tinker with the party’s selection process or downgrade Iowa’s import.

Still, the fight on the Republican side is more than an arcane scheduling matter, or a case of one-upmanship among states eager for some of the attention showered on Iowa. Reflecting the party’s broader philosophical rift, some express concern that the straw poll and caucuses have become a captive of the Christian conservative and tea party wings of the GOP.

“If you want your campaign to be defined entirely on social issues, start your campaign in Iowa because that’s what you’re going to spend most of your time talking about,” said Katie Packer Gage, a strategist for Romney’s 2012 campaign, who is leading an effort to broaden the GOP’s appeal among women. “I’m pro-life and work for pro-life candidates, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a winning strategy for the party for that to be the core message we’re campaigning on day in, day out. We need a broader message to win elections.”

Photo: Joebeone via Flickr

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