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Advocates Invade Iowa, New Hampshire

Michael Petit has an obsession with New Hampshire and Iowa.

His children’s advocacy group, Vote Kids, plans to spend $1 million in both states on television advertising, grass-roots organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts at places like local preschools.

But it’s all part of Petit’s bigger plan to catch the attention of White House hopefuls tromping through the states.

“Our interest is not those two states in 2012. Our interest is the national discussion that will follow once the candidates emerge,” Petit explained. “For us, what we don’t want to happen is the candidates themselves solely define the issues that they want to present.”

As the would-be GOP presidential contenders descend on early primary and caucus states, lobbying interests such as Petit’s are mobilizing with the goal of getting their issues at the forefront of the national agenda. Those locales not only offer access to candidates themselves but also provide a valuable audience that includes a tuned-in electorate and swarms of reporters.

Already, Vote Kids has full-time operations on the ground in both Iowa and New Hampshire and just released a TV campaign that argues against cutting federal programs for college loans, preschools and school nutrition.

“What we’re trying to do with that ad is help inform and prompt … Iowa and New Hampshire voters to challenge the candidates, to ask the candidates questions about these programs,” Petit said. “We want the kids to become a priority for these candidates.”

It might sound easy except that Vote Kids will have a lot of competition to get its message heard, especially as the race for the White House intensifies.

At the other end of the age spectrum, AARP also plans to get its message out in early primary states.

“We will hold events where we invite the candidates to come and share their views on specific issues. Social Security and Medicare will continue to be top of mind as we look to 2012,” AARP government affairs spokeswoman Lori Parham said.

In addition, AARP puts out voter guides and provides information on its website about specific policy issues. It also mobilizes its large grass-roots network in the early states.

“It’s all part of the effort to make sure our members, who vote in large majorities, have everything they need to make the decisions they need when they go into the voting booth,” Parham said.

AARP has run TV and other advertisements in previous years, but Parham said the group hasn’t made any ad buys yet. However, the group is likely to ramp up this summer once more candidates make their bids official. Social media will also be a part of the strategy, she said. And AARP is eyeing opportunities to sponsor official candidate debates.

Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said his organization has trained college students in Iowa and New Hampshire to ask presidential candidates their views about drug laws.

“Our students in those regions are going to be confronting them on whether they support letting states’ residents decide their own drug policies for themselves or whether they’ll support having a heavy-handed federal enforcement model,” Houston said.

In March, the group brought in hundreds of students for training on how to “track” candidates and get their views on video.

“This is going to be a GOP presidential nominating contest like none in history with strong populist and strong libertarian currents,” he added.

The anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform also is planning to reach out to voters participating in early presidential contests, ATR President Grover Norquist said.

ATR expects all of the GOP candidates to take its pledge not to increase taxes, but Norquist said the group plans to do tele-town hall events with hundreds of voters in the states.

“We’ll be discussing why everybody should take the pledge and keep the pledge and never raise taxes,” he said.

Norquist added that in Iowa he has access to good voter lists to help put together the tele-town halls. The Hawkeye and Granite states also offer a lot of potential for getting media attention, he said.

That’s what Petit of Vote Kids is counting on. The group’s recent ad urges Iowa and New Hampshire voters to “tell the presidential candidates to protect America’s kids and the programs that protect them.”