Politics & Policy

Social Conservatives Rally to Santorum

The former senator may be their most popular choice, though Bachmann and Perry draw interest.

Last election cycle, Iowa’s social conservatives and evangelicals catapulted Mike Huckabee to a surprise caucus win. But this time around, the most distinguishing aspect of the social-conservative vote is how fractured it is now — and how fractured it could still be by the time the caucus is held.

“If I was a betting man, which I’m not, I would say it’s going to stay divided,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “But anything can change.”

Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican and a veteran GOP operative, thinks that there is one candidate who might have the momentum to unite social conservatives behind his bid.

“If any candidate is starting to coalesce that support, it’s Santorum,” he observes. “People are still very undecided, but I think Santorum seems to have the momentum with these people. He’s been able to stitch together a significant part of that Huckabee coalition from four years ago.

“I just get the sense that he’s the one on the ground that’s actually moving in terms of [social-conservative support, rather] than Bachmann or Perry,” he adds.

“Rick Santorum probably tops the list for social conservatives, though he’s not alone in the field,” says Ann Trimble-Ray, vice chairwoman of the Sac County GOP. “There’s also Michele Bachmann courting that vote, real strongly, real heavily. And Rick Perry is positioning himself to do the same.”

Today, Santorum was endorsed by two prominent Iowa social conservatives, former Huckabee Iowa campaign manager Bob Vander Plaats and Iowa Family Policy Center president Chuck Hurley. He’s also gained three other significant endorsements this month from influential Iowa religious leaders: Cary Gordon, Terry Amann, and Albert Calaway. “Santorum seems to be surging right now, in the sense that he’s getting a lot of good endorsements,” comments Patti Brown, director of the conservative Iowa Policy Institute, adding that Vander Plaats’s and Hurley’s endorsements “are certainly going to help him with social conservatives.”

But Santorum is not the only one who has endorsements to tout. Bachmann has been endorsed by various social conservatives in the state: In August, she released a list naming over 100 Iowa pastors and faith leaders who supported her candidacy. Yesterday, American Family Association and American Family Radio (which has several stations in Iowa) founder Rev. Don Wildmon endorsed Newt Gingrich.

Perry is also actively courting the evangelical vote, inscribing on his campaign bus the motto “Faith, Jobs, and Freedom.” In a TV ad, he focused on religion, saying, “You don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

Ron Paul, who delivered an emotional speech at the Ames Straw Poll in August centered on his pro-life beliefs, is also drawing support from social conservatives, including homeschoolers. John J. Desaulniers Jr. the marketing director of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, says the top contenders for the thousands of Iowa homeschooling families are Santorum, Paul, and Bachmann.

“In terms of homeschooling, Senator Santorum homeschooled for 17 years. Congresswoman Bachmann did homeschool at some point [and] is very pro-homeschool, [as is] Ron Paul.” Desaulniers says. In addition, Santorum and Bachmann’s pro-life focus resonates with some homeschoolers, while others are drawn to the “fiscal conservatism” Paul staunchly advocates. Desaulniers notes that “each of those candidates support minimal government invasion in the lives of families.”

Robinson thinks that the social-conservative vote may come down to Santorum and Bachmann, saying that he thinks social conservatives are impressed by Perry’s record but, when they attend a Perry event, come away viewing Perry as a “little light on substance.” They also note that he fares poorly against his rivals, saying Perry hasn’t established the same record of leadership on social issues that Santorum has.

Bachmann, at least, appears to be aware that her top competitor is Santorum. At a campaign event in Iowa earlier this week, Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, told Iowa resident Andy Wobbema that “Santorum can’t win,” according to The Iowa Republican’s Kevin Hall. Wobbema was unhappy about an interview Bachmann had done on The Tonight Show in September, in which he felt she had failed to defend her position on gay marriage strongly enough when Jay Leno pushed the issue. In contrast to that interview, “Santorum was on with [CNN host] Piers Morgan, and he didn’t blink an eye,” Robinson says, referring to a late August interview Santorum did that included a discussion about gay marriage. “It was kind of more a natural defense that he gave and was very comfortable, and Bachmann almost seemed like she wasn’t comfortable talking about it.”

But Santorum faces obstacles of his own. Brown suspects that there are some evangelicals who would prefer to vote for a Protestant candidate. “I think that there is still a lot of anti-Catholic bias going on in our world today, and Santorum has gotten some of the anti-Catholic bias by Protestant evangelicals,” she remarks.

Of course, social-conservative and evangelical voters aren’t simply looking at candidates’ records in the abstract, but are thinking ahead to the general election — and considering which social-conservative candidate is best suited to win.

“We would like to have a candidate who most closely reflects our values personally,” says Trimble-Ray. “And we want to make sure Barack Obama isn’t reelected.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...

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