* Religious conservatives cannot decide who to back
* Lack of cohesion could dampen enthusiasm, clout
* They do agree on opposition to Romney
By John Whitesides
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, Dec 10 Frozen by
indecision, Iowa's politically powerful religious conservatives
are still on the sidelines in the Republican presidential race
less than a month before the state's kick-off nominating
After helping to propel Mike Huckabee to victory over Mitt
Romney in the state in 2008, many of Iowa's evangelicals are
struggling this time to choose among the handful of Republican
candidates vying for their support.
"We're like little kids at an ice cream stand and we can't
decide what flavor we want," said Cary Gordon of Sioux City's
Cornerstone Church, one of Iowa's few prominent evangelical
pastors to make a choice ahead of the Jan. 3 contest. He
recently endorsed former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum.
Six of every 10 Iowans who participated in the 2008
Republican contest said they were born-again or evangelical
Christians, making them potential kingmakers if they settle on
But efforts to maximize their clout by rallying around a
single contender have failed, and many religious conservatives
are still conflicted about their array of choices, all of whom
have potential weaknesses.
"There are several candidates that we agree with on certain
issues, but no candidate that makes us jump up and say 'Yes,
that's the one,'" said Kerry Jech, the pastor at the New Hope
Christian Church in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Governor RickPerry, U.S. Representatives Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, and
Santorum have courted the state's evangelicals and social
conservatives with private meetings and church visits.
Gingrich, who leads in Iowa and in national polls, faces
questions from some evangelicals about his three marriages. The
others face doubts about their ability to beat President Barack
Obama in 2012.
"They want to choose the right person, and there is a
little bit of a fear factor that they might make a mistake,"
Bob Vander Plaats, head of the evangelical Family Leader group,
said of indecision among religious conservatives.
"People are looking for someone good on the issues who can
go against Obama, but also go against Romney," he said.
Opposition to Romney is the one thing that unites Iowa's
evangelicals, who question his backing of abortion rights and
an individual healthcare mandate while he was governor of
The lack of enthusiasm for the anti-Romney candidates could
dampen turnout for religious conservatives, however, opening
the door for Romney to pull out a win over a fragmented field
or allowing Gingrich to continue his recent surge.
It could also dilute the influence and message of religious
conservatives in a year when the economy and unemployment are
likely to drive the campaign debate more than moral and social
Two prominent social and religious conservative groups in
Iowa decided to skip making an endorsement this year in part
because of the uncertainty over which candidate to back.
"I have a lot of good friends who are all over the place
now. They just can't decide," said Steve Scheffler, the
influential head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, one
of the two groups that will not endorse.
The Family Leader group is still pondering whether to
endorse Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich or Perry.
"Strangely, given that it's less than a month away, it may
be too early to make a commitment," Vander Plaats said. "I
really believe this election is going to break late and it's
going to break fast."
He received a letter last month from a group urging him not
to endorse Gingrich, who is in his third marriage, because of
his admitted infidelities during his first two marriages.
Those concerns also led Gordon, the Sioux City pastor who
is backing Santorum, to text a satirical music video to Iowa
Republican voters that raises questions about Gingrich's
Nevertheless, some conservatives and religious leaders in
Iowa say Gingrich's marital troubles should not bar him from
"I believe that everyone deserves a second chance. I can't
judge. I'm a Christian," said Kim Schnitker, 47, of Council
Bluffs, who homeschools her six kids and will back Santorum.
Jech said when he and more than a dozen Christian pastors
from Iowa met with Gingrich late last year to discuss his
potential candidacy, Gingrich asked if his marital troubles
would disqualify him.
"I think nearly every one of us said 'If you are truly
sorry, people can be forgiving,'" Jech said. "We have to be
willing to forgive others."
Bachmann, who has attended church in Iowa on campaign
trips, and Santorum, who made a Des Moines church one of his
first campaign stops, both speak directly about their religion
in campaign speeches.
The presidential hopefuls will debate each other on
Saturday night in Iowa, and again next Thursday.
'A LACK OF VALUES'
"Rights come to us from God, and with these rights come
responsibilities," Santorum told a Council Bluffs crowd
recently, ascribing some of the problems in society to "a lack
of values and morals."
Perry, who attends an evangelical megachurch in Texas, has
launched two new television ads in Iowa appealing to social and
religious conservatives as part of a $1.2 million ad blitz in
the final stretch of the Iowa campaign.
Speaking directly to the camera in both, he said he was not
afraid to talk about his values and he vows to end "Obama's war
He also said there is "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."
Organizers of "The Response," the prayer gathering Perry
hosted for 30,000 people in Houston in August a week before he
declared his candidacy, held a similar but much smaller rally
recently under the same name in a Christian church in Cedar
About 200 Iowans attended the event on a cold night,
joining one of the ministers who helped preside at the Houston
event in a prayer for the nation.
"The church is looking for the perfect candidate, and that
doesn't exist," the presiding pastor, Luis Cataldo of the
Forerunner Christian Fellowship in Kansas City, Missouri, said
before the session.
"There hasn't been a clear trumpet sounding for any of the
candidates," he said.
Pollster Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register's
Iowa poll, said fiscal issues like reducing government spending
and creating jobs reflected the mood of Iowa caucus-goers this
year more than social issues.
"This is a different year. This is a different mood. This
is a different agenda," she said.
While there is still time to coalesce around a single
candidate, many conservative leaders in Iowa were not
optimistic about the chances. "I think something almost
supernatural is going to have to happen for a true coalescing
around any one candidate," Vander Plaats said.