DES MOINES, Iowa — Eight years after Mike Huckabee tapped the support of evangelical homeschooling families as part of his winning coalition in the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, a lineup of GOP hopefuls is seeking to duplicate that effort.

Five Republican 2016 prospects courted homeschool families in Des Moines on Thursday at an annual gathering sponsored by a statewide group called the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators. While the number of homeschoolers in the state may be relatively small, they are viewed as a well-organized subset of the evangelical population that participates in the political process.

"Some of the most coveted activists in the Iowa caucuses are homeschool parents," said conservative radio show host Steve Deace, himself a homeschool parent who appeared at Thursday's event.

Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, joined former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for an afternoon panel discussion before hundreds of parents. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined a portion of the program at the state Capitol earlier in the day.

Huckabee, who noted he had appointed a homeschooling parent to the state education board when he was governor, said he's aware of the "extraordinary sacrifice" parents make to school their children at home.

Santorum said he and his wife taught their children at home. Jindal and Cruz also offered their support for homeschooling and educational options for parents.

"I think school choice is the civil rights issue of the 21st century," said Cruz.

As of 2012, Iowa had at least 10,732 homeschooled students in the state. A more recent number is not available because many reporting requirements have been eliminated.

The political influence of the movement was made clear in 2013, when it won changes to state law to reduce regulations on homeschooling. Limiting government oversight of homeschooling remains a priority, as well as concerns over Common Core state standards — voluntary benchmarks that spell out what children should know in certain grades.

Homeschooling parents at the event said they want conservative candidates who oppose abortion, favor traditional marriage and want to crack down on illegal immigration. David Ridgway, 52, of Johnston, who is homeschooling his children, said he wanted "good Christian candidates."

Many said they had not yet selected a candidate, but some were committed. Katie Borwey, 62, of Urbandale, who is homeschooling her two grandchildren, said she plans to support Huckabee.

"Up to this point, he has never lied," she said. "He stands with the Constitution, the way it's written."