By Ed Tibbetts
Iowa’s evangelicals appear to be headed toward splitting their vote at the Jan. 3 presidential caucuses, even as some of the candidates scrambling for their votes seek to siphon support from the others.
When the Family Leader announced last week it wasn’t weighing in as a organization on this year’s Republican race, what appeared to be the last chance to try to swing the support of this important group of voters to a single candidate faded away.
Of course, the results won’t be known until Jan. 3, but polls say Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann all are grouped in a second tier of candidates.
With Ron Paul gaining in the polls and Mitt Romney holding a solid base in the state, some social conservatives worry the chance of elevating a viable candidate popular with evangelicals is slipping away.
Newt Gingrich, while slipping in the polls, has been in the top tier lately. And although his three marriages and personal baggage has given some conservatives pause, he was one of the four candidates being considered for an endorsement by the Family Leader.
“The conservative support is being divided,” Bob Vander Plaats, chief executive of the group, told Fox News last week.
Vander Plaats has endorsed Santorum personally, but it’s not clear how much effect that will have.
The split support has led each of the candidates to step up their appeals to the voting bloc by emphasizing their own credentials and at times directly contrasting themselves with their rivals.
Bachmann frequently refers to herself as the “one, true conservative.” Santorum, meanwhile, recently drew attention to the differences between him and Bachmann by declaring “I wasn’t ready to be president after four years in the House.”
Perry set himself apart from Santorum in a session with the Quad-City Times editorial board last week — simultaneously praising the former Pennsylvania senator while setting himself apart.
“If we tie on our faith and our values, then what would be the tie-breaker?” he asked. He said it was his executive experience and economic record in Texas.
Rank-and-file social conservatives say they’re worried about divided loyalties.
“I am concerned about that,” said Barb Havenner of Bettendorf, a Perry supporter. But she notes even endorsements wouldn’t push her to one side or another. “I make up my own mind.”
Some leading Republicans say it never was realistic that evangelicals could be herded to a single candidate.
“I don’t think it ever was a bloc,” Gov. Terry Branstad said.
He said Mike Huckabee, a favorite among social conservatives who won the caucuses four years ago, won support from voters other than just evangelicals.
“This time around there are a lot of choices,” he added.
The consequences of a split led to some intrigue last week, when Bachmann said Vander Plaats asked her to leave the race, something he denied.
In a statement Thursday, Vander Plaats said the Family Leader’s board asked that the concept of merging the candidacies “in order to provide a solution to the fractured vote of caucus-going conservatives” be explored.
Vander Plaats told Fox that he recognized that was a conversation the candidates should have. “I just laid the seed,” he said.
One longtime Republican strategist in the state says he’s not worried about a split vote.
“Iowa is not about who wins, but it’s about who gets one of the three tickets out,” said Steve Grubbs, a Davenport-based consultant who ran Herman Cain’s Iowa effort. “It’s my belief you will have a moderate, a conservative and a Libertarian. The question is, who will be the conservative?
“The only job of conservatives is to get one to the subsequent states. I’m absolutely confident that will happen.”
Gazette reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this article.