The Iowa caucuses are the first big test of the nominating process, but the 2012 caucuses will also provide the first big test in a presidential contest for the Tea Party, which was formed during President Obama's first year in office.
The Iowa caucuses are now less than eight months away, and the field of Republican candidates is still taking shape, but the Iowa Tea Party has begun its own campaign, in the form of a three-week-long bus tour across the state.
The bus is actually a giant RV with a banner on the side that features images of the U.S. constitution, the American Flag and the web address "www.teapartybustour.com."
It stopped by a city park in the town of Spencer, located in the northwest part of the state. The actual event is not the kind of noisy Tea Party rally that became a staple of the 2010 campaign. This time it's about 20 people in a small community room at the park.
"Well first off I want to thank everybody for coming out here today, especially on a beautiful day here," says Ryan Rhodes, director of the Iowa Tea Party. "I hope this will be very useful to everybody coming."
There are a lot of Tea Party movement staples here: A handful of speakers, one representing a national organization promoting a return to the gold standard. That group is helping to underwrite the bus tour. Another group calls for the elimination of the Department of Education. President Obama is skewered and his Christianity is called into question.
But the biggest chunk of time is devoted to a Power Point presentation about effective campaign organizing.
Ryan Adams of the Leadership Institute explains what a precinct voter list looks like and what campaigners should look for.
It's a presentation not unlike those any activist in any political party might sit through. And the Iowa Tea Party thinks it's something its members — many of whom are relatively new to politics — need to know.
But there is also plenty of talk, outside and during breaks, about the GOP field and how the race is shaping up so far.
Rhodes says he has not picked a candidate yet, but he quickly adds that it won't be Mitt Romney. In fact he was disappointed in last week's debate. He says Romney was treated with kid gloves by the others on the stage, especially former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who backed off on earlier attacks on Romney's Massachusetts health car law.
"I think some of those candidates need to get out there and prove that if they're gonna beat the front runner that they're willing to take those tough shots," he says.
But surprisingly, Romney also found a bit of support in this Tea Party crowd. Rhoda Kaiser, 83, is from the nearby town of Milford.
"Well I was for Romney the first time, last time," she says. "But I like Romney and I like his whole family. I just think they're a wonderful family and I think he'll try."
A Split Vote?
Tea Party growth nationally was fueled by opposition to the health care bill Obama pushed for and signed into law last year. And there's anger over deficits, taxes and federal government intrusion.
But in Iowa the Republican Party is dominated by evangelicals and Christian conservatives and some of that bleeds over into the Tea Party. State Rep. Tom Shaw spoke to the gathering in Spencer.
"Now, a lot of people say 'But Mr. Shaw, it's all about the economy, stupid! Jobs, Jobs, Jobs! We've got to have the economy!'" he says. "Well I'm telling you, it ties right back in ... How do we expect to have moral men to run our nation's government, our states' governments, work on the economy if they don't have the basic morality to preserve innocent life?"
But Dan Rogers, a tea party activist from Spirit Lake, Iowa, says the economy is the main issue and he sees several acceptable candidates in the field. He likes Ron Paul best but ultimately hopes the Tea Party can unite behind one candidate in the caucuses.
"The problem will be if it's split amongst several candidates — the Tea Party vote — if it's split between Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Bachmann," he says. "But I'm afraid the Tea Party voice might be split amongst several candidates, and you could end up getting Romney."
Rogers says because of that it's hard to predict if the Tea Party can have the kind of impact it had in 2010. But the state Tea Party says that's what this bus tour is about. To make sure its members know these candidates inside and out, and to remind them what's at stake.