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Iowa Evangelicals Are Divided Over GOP Candidates


In Iowa, candidates are seeking an important voting bloc - Christian conservatives. Evangelicals united behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee four years ago, propelling him to a first-place finish. At least four of the current Republican presidential candidates are trying to be Huckabee's successor. Iowa Public Radio's Joyce Russell reports.

JOYCE RUSSELL, BYLINE: Some 3,000 conservative Christian voters from across the state turned out for a candidate forum at a Des Moines church last month. Like many, John Clark of Estherville is undecided in the Republican race for president.

JOHN CLARK: I would start with Rick Santorum. My second choice would be Michele Bachmann. I like Rick Perry and I like Newt Gingrich.

RUSSELL: So the evangelical electorate is divided this year, even though Christian conservatives say they're more energized than ever. Hundreds of church faithful became politically active for the first time last year. They joined a campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices whose ruling paved the way for same-sex marriage. But so far all that new energy has not gathered itself up around one candidate in the race for president. Enter the ad wars.


RICK PERRY: I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian. But you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.

RUSSELL: That's Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry launched his presidential campaign just after a giant prayer meeting in Houston, and organizers of that event have set up private meetings with candidates in Iowa to get more pastors politically involved.

Pastor Mike Demastus of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ attended more than one.

PASTOR MIKE DEMASTUS: Yeah. You bet. Free hotel, free meals. Yeah. It's a cheap date for a pastor and his wife. You betcha.

RUSSELL: Demastus was also in on endorsement deliberations. The influential Christian activist organization the Family Leader and other groups struggled to pick a candidate in the race. Demastus says personality differences made some of the groups peel off, and the Family Leader has yet to make its choice. Their president is Bob Vander Plaats.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: Really, what we're looking for is someone who has got the right core values and convictions.

RUSSELL: Namely, he says, Rick Perry, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

VANDER PLAATS: And someone who can defeat Barack Obama. And I think it's no secret, we're also looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney.

RUSSELL: Vander Plaats says the former Massachusetts governor has not been consistent on social issues. Others admit to qualms about his Mormon faith. But Romney has a 42-year marriage to tout, and he has his own ad emphasizing that.

Vander Plaats says Newt Gingrich has everything evangelicals are looking for, if in fact his past is behind him. That past includes marital infidelities and two divorces. Some can't let that slide. A Sioux City pastor is distributing an anti-Gingrich video on the Web.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Seriously, I can't stand Barack Obama, but at least he doesn't trade in his wives like used cars.

RUSSELL: In a bid to win the evangelical vote, Gingrich, on Monday, issued a lengthy statement saying his views on social issues align with a marriage pledge the Family Leader is circulating. Perry, Bachmann and Santorum have signed it. Pastor Demastus still has his doubts about Gingrich.

DEMASTUS: There's a big unknown there. I mean, he speaks the language. But the fact is, is that, you know, he used to be Southern Baptist. Now he's Catholic. Those are big transitions to make in your faith journey.

RUSSELL: In spite of those reservations, a recent CBS New York Times poll of Iowa voters shows more than a third of white evangelicals favoring Gingrich, with the others far behind. Pastor Demastus is backing Bachmann. But gender is an issue for some, like Santorum supporter Molly Gordon, an evangelical homemaker from Sioux City.

MOLLY GORDON: Frankly, I am a woman, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with a woman as president. Women are just - I just don't know if we're cut out to lead.

RUSSELL: One influential conservative went so far as to say evangelicals might have coalesced behind Michele Bachmann if we were talking instead about a Michael Bachmann.

Meanwhile, the Family Leader's endorsement, when it comes, will likely generate financial support for the chosen candidate from evangelical organizations across the country. For NPR News, I'm Joyce Russell in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joyce Russell is a correspondent based at the Iowa Statehouse. Joyce has been covering the Iowa Statehouse since shortly after joining the news staff at WOI Radio in 1988. Her earlier broadcasting experience included news reporting at commercial stations in Oklahoma City and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Joyce’s reports can be heard on National Public Radio and American Public Media programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace. She covered the last six Iowa caucus campaigns and interviewed numerous candidates for president, including some who went on to attain the highest office in the land.
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