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Iowa Evangelicals at Loss in Search for Candidate

Iowa Evangelicals at Loss in Search for Candidate

By Erin McPike - November 30, 2011


Without Mike Huckabee in the presidential race, evangelical Christian voters in Iowa are still searching for a candidate to embrace just five weeks before the caucuses.

The Hawkeye State remains a free-for-all. Republican leaders there continue to chastise Mitt Romney for not committing to the state, and many religious voters find him intolerable in part for his more moderate social stances and because he is a Mormon. The Christian base also isn’t stoked about newly minted front-runner, Newt Gingrich, and the fading Herman Cain has long been more attractive to the Tea Party than to the religious right. Finally, squeezed into the quartet of those polling highest in Iowa is Ron Paul, and he isn’t a favorite of evangelicals, either.

So what is that Christian coalition to do, especially since it helped catapult Huckabee to an upset victory in Iowa four years ago? What’s more, if the two leading candidates aren’t investing much in the state and already are looking beyond its caucuses, what will that mean for the outcome?

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said in a phone interview with RealClearPolitics on Tuesday that any movement of the Christian right toward a particular contender “is still open for discussion.” He added, “It could happen, but I don’t see social conservatives coalescing en masse around one candidate.”

His group is declining to endorse a candidate officially, but Scheffler said he is beginning to favor one -- though he would not say who.

More significant, Scheffler said, is this: “The one person I don’t want to see win the Iowa caucuses is Mitt Romney.” He said he’d support him in the general election if he becomes the nominee, but Scheffler is disgruntled that Romney has distanced himself from social conservatives.

Herman Cain had enjoyed a large share of support in Iowa, but it didn’t come from the Christian conservatives who made Huckabee’s victory possible. Cain released a statement Tuesday evening suggesting he’ll stay in the presidential race, even while conceding that allegations of sexual harassment and now an affair have taken a toll on his candidacy.

But Simon Conway, the afternoon radio host of Des Moines’ WHO, took to the airwaves Tuesday afternoon to say that although he likes Cain, it is time for him to exit the race. Conservative activists say Cain’s support is collapsing, but Scheffler said there’s no way it will go to Romney because he is the establishment favorite, and Cain has been a champion for the anti-establishment.

That may leave an opening for Gingrich to collect Cain’s supporters. Of course to break out from the pack, he would need some help from the Christian base, but he’s not beloved by that group, either, due in large part to his admission of an extramarital affair in the 1990s. And in fact, the Des Moines Register reported Tuesday that one Iowa Christian organization notified Bob Vander Plaats, Huckabee’s champion in Iowa four years ago and the CEO of the Family Leader there, that endorsing Gingrich would be unacceptable to the group.

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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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