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COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa, Jan 21 (Reuters) - In one of the first skirmishes of 2014 between opposing wings of the Republican Party, conservatives and moderates vie on Tuesday for an early lead in the fight to nominate a candidate to run for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin.
Republicans need to win six seats to gain a majority in the U.S. Senate in congressional elections in November. If they retain control of the House of Representatives, they would gain considerable leverage in dealing with Democratic President Barack Obama.
But the party's path to victory is complicated by the conflict between the moderate "establishment" wing and the conservative Tea Party movement, with a number of conservative challengers running in primaries against moderate incumbent senators. Both sides favor lower taxes, spending cuts and smaller government, but while moderates are willing to compromise in many cases it is anathema for Tea Party-backed politicians to do so.
Rural Iowa's convoluted process of caucuses starts on Tuesday, with political analysts viewing them as an early test of the strength of the conservative movement, well ahead of the primary election battles that are set to take place in more than half a dozen states.
Iowa's process of nomination by caucus is unusual, but the threat of bruising primary contests undermining mainstream Republican candidates is a national issue.
The Tea Party has had several victories in the past two election cycles, with Senate wins for Ted Cruz in Texas, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida. But the amorphous conservative movement has also selected Senate nominees like Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri who have been too far to the right, especially on social issues, even for electorates in Republican-leaning states.
"If the conservative base pulls too far to the right in a couple of states, it could cost the party," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
In a Dec. 18 Quinnipiac University poll, Iowa voters said they would prefer a Republican-controlled Senate, but U.S. Representative Bruce Braley, the unopposed Democratic nominee, topped each of the four declared Republicans by six to 11 points.
Braley had raised more than $3 million by the end of September, more than 10 times the amount raised by his nearest Republican competitor, state Senator Joni Ernst, who boasts of castrating pigs when she was growing up on a farm and of having a concealed weapon permit.
Some political scientists say, and Republican strategists worry, that should Iowa's conservatives nominate their candidate, former radio commentator Sam Clovis, the race will be much harder to win in a state where independents form the largest share of registered voters.
"Iowa should definitely be in play, and Republicans could win if they choose someone electable and do it wisely," O'Connell said. "The problem is that rock-ribbed conservatives tend to do very well in primaries in Iowa, but they do not fare as well in general elections."
In Iowa, local precinct caucuses will elect delegates to county caucuses. County caucuses then elect delegates to the state convention, which may then end up selecting the Republican nominee.
In a presidential election year, Iowa is the first state to select presidential nominees through its caucuses, gatherings in precincts where debates and arm-twisting precede votes. Social conservative Rick Santorum won in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, but neither gained their party's nomination.
In a non-presidential election year such as 2014, Iowa uses a quirky hybrid system. A June 3 primary determines the winner, but if no candidate wins more than 35 percent of the vote the Senate nominee will be selected at the convention. With a wide field of largely unknown candidates, observers do not expect anyone will get more than 35 percent.
The last time a nominee for office was selected at a convention in Iowa was in 2002 when conservative and controversial Republican Steve King was chosen to run for a congressional seat. King is now serving his sixth term.
The Republican field "includes every faction of the party, and there is no clear frontrunner," said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University who says a decision at a convention is a likely outcome.
"Conventions are a rotten business where the most determined and organized faction wins," as it takes planning months in advance to control the process, Schmidt said.
Republican Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has been trying to whip up interest in the caucuses among moderate Republicans, but persuading people to show up in January, five months before the primary, in a midterm year requires an energized base that generally favors conservatives who have dominated the state party since 2010.
"In a democracy, the ones who participate are the ones who win," said Tammy Kobza, who is coordinating grassroots conservative efforts across the state through an umbrella group called Unbridled Liberty. "And we are the ones who show up."
In a field observers see as lacking in big names, the candidate considered closest to the party's establishment is former Reliant Energy Chief Executive Officer Mark Jacobs.
Jacobs is expected to raise more money than Clovis and hew to a more mainstream Republican line nearer the center of Iowa's political spectrum.
"I think of all the candidates, Mark Jacobs would give the Republicans the best run for their money," Iowa State University's Schmidt said. "The problem for the party is that the Republican base is very conservative, but the rest of Iowa is not as conservative as the Tea Party."
In the past two election cycles, one of the biggest problems for Tea Party conservatives is they have often split their vote among many primary candidates, but Clovis is the only Tea Partier in Iowa's field this year.
"Sam's a breath of fresh air," said Paul Kurt, 68, of the Dubuque Tea Party. Kurt said he liked Clovis's message of small government and focus on the U.S. constitution, and would speak on the candidate's behalf at a local caucus Tuesday night.
At a pizza restaurant over the weekend, Clovis described himself as a "hard-nosed conservative."
The Tea Party's battles against President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul that resulted in a government shutdown last year were "the wrong fights," he said. Clovis said he would focus on the budget to cut spending instead.
Iowa's unemployment rate stood at 4.4 percent in November, below the national average of 7 percent, but he said the state's voters were focused on pocketbook issues.
"Many voters may disagree with me on social issues," said Clovis, who is against gay marriage and abortion. "Where we can agree is on finding ways to put more money into Iowans' pockets."
Timothy Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa said that if Clovis is nominated and manages to steer clear of social issues, the general election could very well be close.
"If the race comes down to the economy," he said, "then I think it would be a big mistake to write Clovis off."
The most recent government figures show nearly 720,000 registered voters in Iowa are independents, with about 616,000 Republicans and 615,000 Democrats.
Republican strategist O'Connell said selecting a conservative Senate candidate could push independents toward the Democratic candidate.
That is also a risk in Georgia, where a number of candidates for retiring U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss' seat are trying to outdo each other as conservatives and may move to far to the right, O'Connell said.
Midterm elections tend to favor the party that does not hold the White House. Braley spokesman Jeff Giertz noted that fact and said the Democrat's campaign is preparing for a hard battle no matter who the Republican nominee is.
"This will be a tough race all the way to the finish," he said.