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GOP Candidates Get Religion in Iowa

GOP Candidates Get Religion in Iowa

By Erin McPike - March 28, 2011

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- Tim Pawlenty is putting together a sizable and experienced team in Iowa that could make him an imposing figure in the 2012 Republican presidential nominating caucuses here, and his own religious convictions could make him attractive to the critical bloc of evangelical voters.

Evangelical Christians comprise an important part of the Republican electorate in Iowa, and Pawlenty is hardly the only prospective GOP presidential candidate trying to convince faith-based conservatives that he is one of them.

Four years ago, the clout of these voters in the Republican caucuses was one major incentive in inducing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to shed his moderate image in 2007 and promote a newfound platform of socially conservative views. And they put former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee over the top in the state's 2008 caucuses. Now, Pawlenty is quietly reaching out to Huckabee's network of pastors via his own church in an effort to pull them into his fold.

The former Minnesota governor and his wife Mary are members of the Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, an interdenominational megachurch a dozen miles southwest of the Twin Cities. Through his own fellowship community and its connections to big churches in other states - like Iowa - Pawlenty is making connections to shore up support among those influential pastors who could help him with religious voters. Republican activists favorable to Pawlenty here, as well as GOP churchgoers, say he has been meeting with pastors, and his team is starting to get him in front of religious groups.

A spokesman declined to discuss the campaign's effort in this area, but the candidate's new book, "Courage to Stand," is sprinkled with Bible verses, and Mrs. Pawlenty is generally described as being very devout.

Due to a long planned family vacation, advisers said, Pawlenty was not able to attend Republican Rep. Steve King's Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines this weekend, and he did not speak before the Iowa Renewable Project's Pastors' Policy Briefing at the Sheraton hotel here in the preceding days.

The likely candidates who did address the pastors include Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. According to several of the pastors' conference attendees interviewed for this story, there is no consensus candidate for religious conservatives yet - and it remains to be seen if such a candidate will emerge, assuming Huckabee doesn't run.

Former Ohio GOP Rep. Bob McEwen introduced many of the event's speakers, and his wife, Liz, helped out at the event. She said Huckabee has been addressing pastors at events like these for some 14 years, and Gingrich has been doing the same for the past five years.

But the events are mostly comprised of singing, praying, speaking and sermon-giving - and are not supposed to be political at all. They're meant for the pastors, Mrs. McEwen said, which is why members of the media are not allowed in to attend the sessions.

Yet, this briefing was designed to teach pastors how to encourage their congregations to take their religious values to the ballot box, and several pastors raved to RealClearPolitics about what they learned.

Stan Zack, an attendee from northern Indiana, said one of the major messages was that churchgoers should vote with their belief systems in mind rather than voting for the person or impressive candidates - as Barack Obama was to many voters.

Zack drew on an example in his own family. He explained that his brother-in-law is both a staunch Christian and a loyal union member who has long voted for Democrats because his union leadership instructed him to do so. But after coming away from the conference, Zack said he was inspired to teach more people that they should vote not based on what unions tell them - but based on how wisdom, God and their own faith moves them.

"I personally feel that we've lost our way as a country morally," he said, adding that speakers at the briefing placed a premium on the importance of life issues and traditional marriage.

He said he thought Michele Bachmann was very impressive when she addressed the group, but he worried aloud that she has too much baggage to go very far. Zack said he wishes Huckabee would run again. He said he thinks that Mitt Romney's best chance may have been in 2008 and that Pawlenty "could be good."

That might be a sign of things to come. Among this crowd, personal faith seemed to carry more weight than stances on policy issues. Although Iowans for two decades, Terry and Gisele Chapman are originally from Mississippi - but that didn't cut much ice when it came to their evaluations of Haley Barbour.

"We remember when Haley was a Democrat," Mrs. Chapman said. (According to Barbour spokesman Jim Dyke, the Mississippi governor was never a Democrat. "Governor Barbour left college to work on his first political campaign, which was for Richard Nixon, and after that he worked for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and John Connelly in 1980 before running for the Senate in Mississippi as a Republican, working as Ronald Reagan's political director and then served as chairman of the Republican National Committee," Dyke said.)

"Haley was the most political person in there," her husband added. "He gave more of a political message."

Asked who in the current presidential field appeals to him most so far, Terry Chapman replied, "I like Michele Bachmann. She gave her testimony - not a political speech."

He continued: "We're not that political. We wouldn't consider ourselves activists ... Christians should vote and think about how they practice their religions. They need to remember that God is a part of this country."

So how is that going to play into the choices that caucus-goers make, especially given that there is growing concern among some Republican leaders in the state that they need to pick a candidate who can win beyond Iowa, and a candidate who emphasizes religion first might not cut it?

As one Republican official explained, it may not be about beating the drum for conservative Christians all the time. Instead, it may be more about first showing voters that candidates are pro-life and in favor of traditional marriage in order to clear the hurdle. Once a candidate is able to do that, he said, they'll need to show their strengths in other areas.

To this party professional, Tim Pawlenty just might be the candidate able to bridge that gap, and that's why the early meetings with religious groups and pastors are crucial to his launch.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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