In Washington, it’s all about the economy. But not here.

As the Republican presidential candidates gear up for Saturday’s critical straw poll in Ames, they are aggressively targeting a network of pastors, parents who home-school their children, evangelicals and other conservatives who care as much about stopping gay marriage as they do about the debt ceiling.

Whoever gains traction with this crucial constituency in Iowa could not only win the straw poll but could galvanize religious conservatives throughout the country who remain a powerful force in Republican politics. On Thursday night, GOP contenders squared off at a debate in Ames, hoping to more sharply define their candidacies.

In 2007, with no other major candidate rallying the Christian conservative movement, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee came from behind to finish second in the straw poll. He then won the Iowa caucuses and several other primary contests by courting religious conservatives.

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