Iowa Evangelicals Are Divided Over GOP Candidates

fromWOI

A spirited fight is on in Iowa for the evangelical vote in the Republican race for president. So far, Christian conservatives have not coalesced behind one candidate, the way they did four years ago for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB VIDEO)

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.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.