Prominent Iowa Conservative Backs Santorum

fromWOI

The Family Leader, an influential social conservative organization based in Iowa, has decided to remain neutral in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But the group's founder, Bob Vander Plaats, surprised many political observers Tuesday by throwing his support to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

One underdog in the race for the Republican presidential nomination got a boost today in Iowa. Rick Santorum won the endorsement of two leading Evangelical Christians. Evangelical voters can be a powerful force in the Iowa caucuses.

But this time around, they remain divided, as we hear from Joyce Russell of Iowa Public Radio.

JOYCE RUSSELL, BYLINE: An endorsement from the influential Christian organization the Family Leader had been awaited for weeks. The endorsement did not happen today, but Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats says Rick Santorum has his personal blessing.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: He has been a stalwart and a soldier for the sanctity of human life and God's design for the family and one man, one woman marriage. He could be the Huckabee in this race.

RUSSELL: Meaning former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, Mike Huckabee, who united evangelicals four years ago and took first place in the caucuses. But that kind of unity remains elusive in this cycle. Fellow evangelical leader Chuck Hurley joined Bob Vander Plaats to endorse Santorum.

CHUCK HURLEY: I do regret that one erstwhile friend and culture warrior has threatened to, quote, "Burn Bob's body, drag it through the streets and hang it from a bridge," unquote, if Bob doesn't endorse who that person wants him to endorse.

RUSSELL: While the Family Leader's president is now behind Santorum, the organization's board is remaining neutral. But Vander Plaats himself is very influential among Iowa evangelicals and his endorsement may open up some pocketbooks. At least that's what Jamie Johnson with the Santorum campaign in Iowa is hoping for.

JAMIE JOHNSON: We need fundraising right now in a very big way. But whether we have a lot of money or whether we have a widow's might, we're going forward with the full expectation of an Iowa miracle on January 3rd.

RUSSELL: Most recent polls have Santorum in the single digits in Iowa. Vander Plaats downplays Santorum's low poll numbers.

PLAATS: That caucus is a turnout exercise. I believe, because of his organization, I believe he is ready for a January 3 surprise. I really do.

KEVIN HALL: For the Santorum campaign, this is an enormous get for them. It's a huge, huge momentum boost for them.

RUSSELL: That's conservative columnist Kevin Hall with the website, IowaRepublican.com. He says Santorum, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann each stood to benefit from a Vander Plaats endorsement.

HALL: They were all looking for a momentum boost, and Santorum is the one that winds up getting it.

RUSSELL: And Hall says this may give Santorum his chance to rise in the polls. Meanwhile, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich got his own evangelical boost today with the endorsement of the head of the American Family Association, a major funder of conservative causes.

For NPR News, I'm Joyce Russell in Des Moines.

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