AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Four years ago in the Iowa caucuses, evangelical voters rallied behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who won an upset victory and shook up the Republican field in the process. With the 2012 Iowa caucuses just over 10 weeks away, conservative Christian Republican voters in Iowa are still searching for a candidate. Last night they sized up six GOP hopefuls at a banquet in Des Moines. NPR's Don Gonyea was there.
DON GONYEA: As dinner attendees made their way to long tables carrying paper plates of chicken, potatoes and vegetables, Texas Governor Rick Perry navigated the aisles saying hello.
Governor RICK PERRY: How are you? Y'all doing all right?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nice to meet you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thanks for coming.
PERRY: Oh, absolutely. Thank you.
GONYEA: Over near the serving line, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich posed for pictures. Across the way, former Senator Rick Santorum shook hands, while Congressman Ron Paul worked the room. Also appearing, but not until it was time for them to speak, were businessman Herman Cain and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The dinner was sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. Each of these candidates considers evangelical voters a key part of their base. But Bill Gustoff, a Des Moines attorney and home-schooling advocate, says right now none seem poised to do what Mike Huckabee did in 2008.
BILL GUSTOFF: He had lightening in a bottle, really. He had a lot of elements that we all liked that came together. And this time I think you have something you don't like about every candidate and some things you really do like about every candidate. And nobody has just the exact mix of what we're looking for.
GONYEA: And if you're looking for a living, breathing example of what Gustoff is talking about, take 72-year-old Joe Guisenger of Waukee, Iowa. He's wearing two stickers: one that says Perry and one that says Santorum. When I asked him which he'll vote for, he adds yet another name to the mix. Are you a Santorum supporter or a Perry supporter. Who do you like?
JOE GUISENGER: Cain.
GONYEA: Herman Cain's your first choice?
GONYEA: Herman Cain is the candidate people were talking about most last night because of remarks he made last week on CNN about abortion where he seemed to suggest such decisions are up to families, even as he said abortion should be illegal. Last night, he attempted some damage control, citing the unalienable rights included in the Declaration of Independence.
HERMAN CAIN: And among these are life from conception. No abortions. No exceptions.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GONYEA: The applause was polite but far from enthusiastic. In the audience was Ron Herrig of Dubuque, an undecided voter who predicted Cain's words will hurt him.
RON HERRIG: I think he shot himself in the foot. I'm not sure, but if that's how he feels, that's how he feels, and caucus-goers are going to have to make a decision about who they're going to support. If they're still going to support him, fine; if they don't, well...
GONYEA: Newt Gingrich received the most enthusiastic reception last night. Mitt Romney, never a favorite of evangelicals, did not attend. The evening also included these words of caution from National Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus:
REINCE PRIEBUS: There's no such thing as a perfect candidate. There's only one perfect person that walked this earth. We have so much to fight for in this election.
GONYEA: And he promised the party will be united behind the candidate it chooses to take on President Obama. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.
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.