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Issue-focused groups take page from presidential candidates, flood Iowa before 2016 caucuses

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Presidential candidates aren't the only ones knocking on doors and taking over the airwaves in Iowa before the state's kickoff presidential caucuses. A slew of issue-advocacy groups also view Iowa as fertile ground to reach voters, influence the national debate and get face time with the 2016 hopefuls.

The issues being pushed through ad campaigns and grass-roots efforts run the gamut from early childhood education, campaign finance reform, environmental policy and the national debt. While advocacy groups have circulated during other caucus seasons, veteran political strategist Doug Gross can't recall another year with this many groups jockeying for Iowa voters' attention.

"You go to where the attention is," said former Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn, who is on the advisory board for a foreign policy-focused group called Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security. "That's the first-in-the-nation states ... It's a unique opportunity in American politics to get your issue elevated outside of the beltway."

Gross, a Republican, said the influx is due to three things: "One, the candidates are here, two the media is here and three, it's relatively cheap to do it Iowa." But he cautioned that it may be a challenge to cut through the increasing chatter.

"People's heads are swimming anyway," said Gross. "Unless you are predisposed on that issue, it's unlikely to motivate someone who is not motivated. ... It can have some impact, but it has to touch a nerve and you have to really target it ..."

Many groups say they've been pleased with their impact in the state so far.

Strawn's group, led by former Michigan U.S. Rep. , held a kickoff event at the Iowa Capitol earlier this year and has been holding forums with candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. On Thursday, they'll hold their fifth candidate event in Iowa, with former Florida Gov. .

"Most candidates have done a forum. We've been incredibly pleased with the progress we've made with individual candidates and with Iowans," Strawn said. He noted that they have been the main group focusing on foreign policy issues thus far, which has helped them draw attention.

Save the Children Action Network recently launched an Iowa campaign, spending $750,000 on television ads in three media markets, door-to-door legwork and other advertising.

Spokesman Brendan Daly said they will be focusing on early childhood education, with a goal of pushing candidates to detail how they'd expand access to educational opportunities. The group is also working in New Hampshire and South Carolina on issues related to children.

" saw one of our volunteers in Iowa and said: 'I saw one of you in New Hampshire,'" Daly said.

Another group is First Budget, a combination of two fiscal watchdog groups seeking to have candidates talk about how they'll tackle federal debt.

Sara Imhof, who is director of education and grassroots advocacy for the Concord Coalition, said they did some work in the 2012 election cycle, but this year's effort is more intense.

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