KALONA, Iowa (Reuters) - First come morning prayers, then breakfast, then Bible stories. After that Andrea Farrier’s daughters take out their textbooks. Another school day has begun.
As the girls dig in to their math problems, Farrier contemplates the Republican presidential candidates who are vying for the support of homeschoolers like her.
“They’re wooing us. It feels really good,” she says.
After decades on the margins of political life, homeschoolers have become some of the most valued Republican foot soldiers in Iowa, where a few thousand activists can wield an outsize influence in the first nominating contest in the 2012 presidential election.
Four years ago, homeschoolers helped push Mike Huckabee to a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses over Mitt Romney’s better-funded, better organized campaign.
This time around, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum proudly point out that they homeschooled their own children, while Ron Paul touts himself as a “homeschooling champion” on his campaign Web site. Rick Perry proclaimed an official “homeschool week” as governor of Texas, and Herman Cain joined other candidates at a homeschool conference earlier this year.
So far, no candidate has emerged as the favorite — in part because so many fit the bill.
The candidates are not just after votes. They need volunteers to make phone calls, knock on doors and persuade neighbors to leave their warm houses in the middle of winter to sit through an often-lengthy caucus process.
With a national grassroots network and a tradition of activism, conservative Christian homeschoolers are among the most enthusiastic volunteers a Republican can hope for.
Their suspicion of government, borne of decades of skirmishes with education authorities, fits with the small-government Tea Party ideals that loom large this year.
“This go-round, they will definitely be an important voice,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a Christian conservative leader who served as state chairman of Huckabee’s 2008 campaign. “They have such an amazing network and they’re used to volunteering and used to being active.”
For Des Moines grandmother Linda Brewer, that means battling her shyness to work the phones for Santorum. “I take a deep breath before every call,” said Brewer, who homeschooled her four children. “It’s not my most favorite thing to do.”
For David Keagle, that means driving a red, white and blue school bus painted with slogans like “Stop the IRS” in local parades as his nine children wave Ron Paul signs.
“He’s spot-on on lowering taxes, and when it comes to Christian values and morals, he’s spot-on on those as well,” Keagle said.
The homeschooling movement emerged in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960s, as Christian conservatives felt that their beliefs were crowded out of the schools and under attack in the culture at large.
Their anti-government attitudes hardened as many faced state persecution for educating their children at home.
When a school superintendent threatened to report Jolene Walker to prosecutors in the 1980s, the Kalona-area homeschooler arranged for out-of-state friends and family to take in her children if she and her husband were locked up.
“What was very unnerving for us was the possibility of going to jail, and there was nothing we could do that would satisfy the demands of the superintendent,” Walker said.
Iowa legalized homeschooling in 1991, one of the last states to do so. Homeschooled children there now account for about 6 percent of the student population, roughly double the national average.
Homeschoolers got involved in politics because they had no other choice, according to one national leader.
“The establishment tried to take away our freedom,” said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association. “We became a political force because we had to protect ourselves.”
Farris’ group runs a program for teens that has supplied volunteers to more than 60 political campaigns since 2003. In 2008, they helped Bachmann hold onto her congressional seat in the face of a tough Democratic challenge.
An affiliated political action committee endorsed 40 congressional candidates in the last election cycle, including one who was educated at home, Jamie Herrera Buetler.
The organization raised $68,000 for Republican candidates.
“They’re great allies,” said Senator Jim DeMint, a leader of the party’s conservative wing.
While homeschoolers span the ideological spectrum, a majority in Iowa count themselves as Christian conservatives and many say their religious beliefs are a primary reason they educate their kids at home.
Creationism — the belief that the Earth was created in seven days and humans did not evolve from lower life forms — is commonly taught alongside evolution, which is regarded with skepticism at best.
Many homeschoolers take a hands-on approach to civic education. Lobbying trips to the state capitol are an annual event, and political campaigns become a learning opportunity.
“Government isn’t a one-semester course in high school — it’s part of your lifestyle,” Farrier said.
Barb Heki, a statewide leader of religious homeschoolers who played a prominent role in the Huckabee campaign, got involved in politics after her then-teenage son attended a civics conference at the state capitol. Four years later, her kids were overseeing adults in President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
“We set the textbooks aside and poured ourselves into real-life learning,” Heki said.
So far, no candidate has emerged as the consensus pick of homeschoolers, or the Christian right as a whole. Farris’ endorsement gave Huckabee a crucial boost in 2007, but he said he’s not certain he will back any candidate this time.
Many say they are waiting for the field to shake out.
Two candidates popular in the homeschool community, Bachmann and Paul, finished first and second in an August straw poll, seen as an early test of organizational clout.
Bachmann’s links to homeschoolers go back to her activist roots. Paul has won support for his vision of a radically scaled back federal government, though his libertarian views on social issues can be a stumbling block.
Santorum has picked up some support as well.
Perry has supported homeschoolers as Texas governor, but activists say he has failed to make substantial inroads in Iowa. Several said they were disturbed by his backing of mandatory vaccinations for girls to prevent the spread of HPV, a sexually transmitted disease.
Romney has made Iowa less of a priority than other early-voting states like New Hampshire this time around, but he could have a shot at winning if homeschoolers don’t unite.
That would be a bitter pill for many homeschoolers, who balk at Romney’s relatively moderate track record and Mormon faith. Many said they would have trouble supporting Romney if he was the party’s nominee next year.
“Why would I want to vote for somebody who might be the antithesis of everything I believe as a Christian, just because he’s not as bad as the other guy?” Heki said. “That doesn’t make any sense.” (Editing by Kristin Roberts and Doina Chiacu)