PELLA, Iowa – The presidential candidates aren't the only Republicans divided about letting the government borrow even more money to pay its bills. So, too, are the voters they're courting.
Fiscal hard-liners in early voting states say the issue is a major test for any would-be challenger to President Barack Obama, a Democrat. They're refusing to consider backing someone who leaves open the door to raising the debt ceiling.
As Len Gosselink, an Iowa Republican, put it after listening to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich last week: "It's unthinkable in my mind to support a candidate who would allow it."
Others say the borrowing limit must rise as part of a broader deficit-reduction strategy that includes other actions such as a balanced budget amendment. They're betting that by next winter, when the Iowa caucuses begin the 2012 nominating race, the summer debate over the credit limit will have faded.
"Most caucus-goers are open to options," said Mark Greenfield, a county GOP chairman in central Iowa. "Realistically, we're going to have to raise it. People are just tired of government spending and this is how they are showing it."
From Iowa to New Hampshire and South Carolina, the debate in Washington has spilled over into the White House race.
Candidates are stepping carefully as they maneuver for political advantage and voters are paying close attention to what they're saying on the issue. In the nation's capital, Obama and Congress are struggling to get a deal that would avoid a potentially catastrophic default on Aug. 2.
But most of their rivals, who don't work on Capitol Hill and won't have to vote on the issue, are more nuanced when they discuss it, grudgingly backing an increase with conditions, such as spending cuts commensurate with the higher limit, as well as a balanced budget amendment.
The mix of positions reflects both the near universal anxiety in the GOP base about spending and the range of voter sentiment about the best course to deal with a complex subject. The issue is clearly salient within the party. A national Gallup Poll published Wednesday found that 60 percent of Republicans oppose raising the debt limit, compared with 42 percent of all those surveyed.
The conversations on the campaign trail between candidates and voters illustrate the tricky politics.
The first question asked of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at an event in northern Iowa last week was about the GOP's resolve against raising the debt ceiling.
"I hope and pray they don't do it," Pawlenty said. He then said if they do raise it, they should "at a minimum" also get a constitutional amendment to balance the budget "to make sure we don't have to rely on the good will and false promises of politicians to get the budget balanced in the future."
Elsewhere in the state, Gingrich earned applause when he said he would refuse to support an increase without equal spending cuts. Just as quickly, Gingrich lost some support, including Gosselink's, by saying that increasing the borrowing authority was inevitable without a balanced budget.
South Carolina Republican Marian Barbary is among those who take the position that the potential economic impact of not acting has been exaggerated.
"They have to make us think that everything will go to pot. It's not going to happen," Barbary said after listening to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman leave the door open to raising the debt ceiling if accompanied by spending cuts and a balanced budget amendment.
"If they don't increase the debt ceiling, the world's not going to fall apart," Barbary said.
Becky Kepler, an Iowa GOP activist, is among those looking for a candidate who won't bend on the debt limit. She is leaning toward supporting Bachmann.
"The more you give in every time, your credibility in saying no becomes zilch," said Kepler, a county-level organizer in west-central Iowa.
But voting doesn't begin for six months and by then the debt crisis may have passed as the issue of the moment.
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
Follow AP reporter Thomas Beaumont on Twitter (at)TomBeaumont
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