Iowa Evangelical Endorses The Political Underdog

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As the Iowa caucuses rapidly approach, faith and family values play big roles in how local voters determine their support for candidates. Host Michel Martin talks with evangelical Bob Vander Plaats, who heads the Iowa-based conservative group, The Family Leader. He recently announced his personal endorsement for Rick Santorum.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are going to stay on the topic of politics and take a closer look at a candidate whom supporters hope will be the breakout star of the Iowa caucuses. That is former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Recent polls show him surging into third place among the Republican presidential contenders. That's after months at the back of the pack.

Among those converts to Santorum's camp is one particularly influential voice in Iowa politics, particularly on the Republican side. That is Bob Vander Plaats. He is the president and CEO of the Iowa-based organization called The Family Leader. It takes a conservative view of social issues. And he's back with us once again. Mr. Vander Plaats, thank you so much for joining us once again. Happy New Year to you.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: Well, Michel, Happy New Year to you and to your listeners and thank you for having me on your program.

MARTIN: You know, when we last spoke in April, you had already been approached by every candidate then in the race, as I recall, and even some who had not made the decision to jump in. At the time we spoke, you said your goal was - and I do - this is a good point to place the point out that your endorsement is a personal one. Right? It's your personal endorsement.

PLAATS: Right. It is a personal endorsement.

MARTIN: Not the organization one. But, at the time, you said the goal was have a level playing field, find out the candidate's core values and convictions - what's their vision for the country - and can they beat President Obama.

So, how did you personally decide that Rick Santorum was the guy who fit that bill?

PLAATS: Well, first of all, we're very sold on Rick Santorum with his core values, his convictions. We believe we can trust him. We believe he's a man of integrity. And even people who disagree with him about his conclusions on issues, they don't find him disagreeable.

We also believe he has a great vision for this country. He was kind of Tea Party before Tea Party was cool. He was part of the Gang of Seven. And then, can he beat Barack Obama? We have to look back at history. He defeated three incumbent Democrats on his way to become a congressman and then a U.S. senator. We believe Rick Santorum has what it takes, not only to lead this country, but also to defeat Barack Obama and to carry our values into the White House.

MARTIN: But he also couldn't defend his own Senate seat...

PLAATS: Well, he didn't defend his own...

MARTIN: ...in his last campaign.

PLAATS: ...Senate seat in the 2006 race and he was the number one target by the Democrats. Pennsylvania is a fairly blue state. They saw Rick Santorum as a huge threat. And, if you'll recall, Michel, 2006 was a bad year for any Republican on the ticket and especially when you're the number one target by the Democrats.

MARTIN: Well, and there's also been an interesting wrinkle to this story. We talked about the whole question of whether this a personal or the endorsement of your organization. Since you've come out in support of Rick Santorum, there's been a lot of back and forth over whether you were trying to pressure other candidates, other social conservative candidates, to get out of the race and that's - now, you've said publicly you just think it's just common sense for people who share a certain skill set and values perspective to coalesce around one candidate.

Could you just tell us, though, what do you think is going on? Or how do you interpret all this anger around your decision to support Rick Santorum? In fact, I have to mention that Michele Bachmann, for example, who had an early surge in Iowa, has said that you actually tried to pressure her to get out.

PLAATS: Well, you know, I can see some of the emotion around my endorsement of Rick Santorum, especially when you're not the one that I endorsed. However, we've been looking at this process for months. You talked about me being on your program back in April.

A lot of us who've been sizing up this field - we've seen it for what it is. Is that we are fragmenting our vote amongst many good pro-family conservative candidates. And if we continue to do that, the nominee or the person we're going to launch out of Iowa is going to be Governor Mitt Romney.

We're kind of looking for that alternative to Romney, so it only makes sense for there to be a teaming or a coalescing. Now, I never called Michele Bachmann to pressure her to get out of the race, but I did call Michele Bachmann. I did call Rick Perry. I did call Rick Santorum and I planted the seed about - if we team, united we stand, but divided, I believe, we're going to fall.

And I said that can't be a Bob Vander Plaats decision. That should be a candidate-to-candidate decision. And I'm telling you, Michel, that for people on the ground here in Iowa, if they saw a candidate lead that way to say, you know, this is about the cause of the country. It's not about me personally. This is about us winning, not only the Iowa caucuses, but the primary, and then to beat Obama, I think you'd see people just rally around that.

MARTIN: I do want to...

PLAATS: However, that didn't happen and so what I did is I went out and I endorsed Rick Santorum. And I think what you're seeing right now is that conservatives are starting to coalesce on their own. They see Rick Santorum as the person who can win the Iowa caucuses, then go on to beat Romney and go on to beat Obama.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you a little bit about the quest to beat President Obama. Obviously, if you're a Republican, you want your team to win.

PLAATS: Sure.

MARTIN: But we had a conversation yesterday with Kevin Williamson of the conservative magazine, The National Review, and he described conservatives' feelings about the president this way. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KEVIN WILLIAMSON: The real dynamic on the right right now is between people who dislike Barack Obama and think his policies are wrong and people who hate Barack Obama and think that he's evil.

MARTIN: Why do they hate him?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I think partly it's cultural. Partly, it's that he does pursue some pretty bad policies.

MARTIN: Well, what's your - and obviously, he had a longer answer than that, but what's your take on that? I mean, do you really - is the issue here hatred for President Obama? What's your take on this?

PLAATS: Michel, absolutely not. And I hope none of us are motivated by hate and, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, if we're motivated by hate, that's not a Christian value. Matter of fact, I happen to respect and admire President Obama and his wife, Michelle, for their marriage to one another, as well as being a great example of raising their two young daughters. That's why I respect and admire President Obama.

Where I have a disagreement with President Obama is in his policies. He's had a very mixed bag of policies as it relates to Israel. He won't defend the Defense of Marriage Act. He won't stand up for one man, one woman marriage, the universal health care. I just believe a lot of things are at risk in regards to our faith, our family and our freedom under President Obama.

It is not motivated by hate whatsoever. Matter of fact, I have great admiration for him breaking that race barrier, being our first African American president. I think that's a very good thing. His family values that he demonstrates with his own family, I think, is a very good thing.

It's the policy issues that we have disagreement on, not that we have hatred about. That's what I think makes America great, that we can discuss our disagreements, but it's not filled with hatred. I would never be about that.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go - and we only have a minute left - and I do hope we'll talk again soon.

PLAATS: I do.

MARTIN: The polls all show that, while many people consider the social issues important, the economy really is foremost in many voters' minds. How does somebody like Rick Santorum - and we only have, I'm sorry, 45 seconds left on this...

PLAATS: Sure.

MARTIN: ...distinguish himself on an issue like this.

PLAATS: Well, I think Rick Santorum has been very clear about the economy and limited government and he ties it back to the family, that if we have strong marriages, we'll have strong families. If we have strong families, we can have limited government and we also can have a thriving economy. But you have to get back to strong families first.

And I think, in the fiscal conservatives and I've studied economics and I've taught economics, they're starting to make that connection that social conservatism and fiscal conservatism have to walk hand in hand for the betterment of the future of this country.

MARTIN: That was Bob Vander Plaats. He is the president and CEO of the Iowa-based organization, The Family Leader. He joined us from Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. And of course Iowa moves into the national spotlight next week with the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd. Mr. Vander Plaats, thank you so much for joining us once again. Happy New Year to you.

PLAATS: Michel, same to you. Thank you.

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