Iowa's evangelicals moving to Santorum

DES MOINES Thu Dec 29, 2011 6:47pm EST

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to supporters at a campaign stop at the Button factory restaurant in Muscatine, Iowa December 29, 2011. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to supporters at a campaign stop at the Button factory restaurant in Muscatine, Iowa December 29, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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DES MOINES (Reuters) - Signs that Rick Santorum is suddenly a contender in the race for the Republican nomination for president were all over Iowa on Thursday.

The former Pennsylvania senator - who has built his long-shot campaign around trying to appeal to evangelical Christians in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday - received a boost when several prominent preachers said their followers were coalescing behind Santorum.

Some preachers called on one of Santorum's chief rivals for the influential evangelical vote, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, to abandon her campaign, or fold hers into Santorum's.

"It seems to me that it's time for her to close down shop," said Cary Gordon, a Sioux City pastor who said the move would allow conservative Christians to speak with one voice - and possibly prevent a victory in Iowa by Mitt Romney or Ron Paul.

Many evangelicals see Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, as too moderate and Paul, a Texas congressman backed by libertarians, as unelectable. The winner of the Republican nomination faces Democratic President Barack Obama in November.

"The reality is, we are divided and being conquered, so to speak, if we don't coalesce around one candidate," Gordon said.

In perhaps the most significant sign that Santorum had arrived as a contender, Texas Governor Rick Perry - the third candidate in the GOP field who has made a special point of attracting evangelicals - launched a negative radio ad against Santorum.

In campaign parlance, Perry's ad - which accused Santorum of backing costly spending projects while in the Senate - was a sign of respect, an acknowledgement that Santorum had broken from the back of the pack of Republican contenders.

SEEKING A 'SPARK'

The good vibes for Santorum came a day after a CNN/ORC poll indicated that he was running a best-ever third in the Republican race in Iowa, behind Romney and Paul and ahead of one-time leader Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.

The poll, and evangelicals' flocking to Santorum on Thursday, are signs that he is having at least some success in trying to follow the 2008 strategy of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses before fading out of the race.

"I've always said that the people of Iowa are going to give me the spark and that's what I believe is happening right now," Santorum, who has visited each of Iowa's 99 counties and held 350 town hall meetings, told Fox News.

Several Christian leaders who support Santorum say they believe they have persuaded many evangelicals to unite behind Santorum.

Evangelicals made up about 60 percent of the Republican vote in Iowa in 2008, helping power Huckabee to a surprise victory over Romney.

"Without question, the coalescing is beginning," said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa evangelical leader who has endorsed Santorum. "I think Santorum is going to be the benefactor."

Santorum's rise has placed rivals Bachmann, Perry and to some extent Gingrich in jeopardy in the race for third place in Iowa.

A third-place finish would provide sufficient momentum to carry a candidate on to the next contest in New Hampshire on January 10 and then on January 21 in South Carolina, where Republicans would look favorably on the more conservative candidates. Gingrich has led recent polls there.

"Whoever wins that evangelical primary, and everybody assumes it's going to be Santorum, gets a ticket to South Carolina," a senior Romney adviser said Thursday.

Bachmann, who won the Iowa straw poll in August but then fell out of contention, has vowed not to quit. But she needs a last-minute jolt here after several days of disheartening news.

As her bus rolled away from a news conference on Thursday, the music aboard was "Start Me Up," by the Rolling Stones.

Bachmann's campaign suffered an embarrassing setback on Wednesday when her Iowa political director, Kent Sorenson, bolted her campaign to join up with Paul.

On Thursday, Bachmann alleged that Paul offered Sorenson "a great deal of money" to join him, which Sorenson and Paul's campaign denied.

Albert Callaway, a preacher in Indianola, said Bachmann should fold her campaign into Santorum's to add to his strength, and said they should campaign in tandem on a conservative ticket.

"But it looks like Rick Santorum is doing pretty good right now" without her, Callaway told Reuters.

Santorum's rise hasn't been good news for Perry, who initially made his record of job creation in Texas the centerpiece of his campaign.

Now, Perry is campaigning on his faith and "family values," hoping to attract evangelical support.

He has spent millions of dollars on ads, hoping Iowans will give him a second look after his shaky debate performances took the air out of his campaign.

At an event in Muscatine, Iowa, last week, Perry was asked how often he prayed.

"I prayed right before I walked over here that I wouldn't make any mistakes and my friends in the media would be able to put on the television," he said. "I pray often. I pray a lot because I'm prone to make a lot of mistakes."

Political analyst David Yepsen of the University of Southern Illinois said Santorum's rise could be limited.

Yepsen said he doubted whether Santorum has enough time to draw the type of evangelical support that Huckabee enjoyed.

"The social conservatives are still split," he said. "I think the next few days they've got their work cut out for them trying to get people on board with Santorum."

(Additional reporting by Kay Henderson in Des Moines and Samuel P. Jacobs in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey)

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