By Alana Semuels and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
DES MOINES, Iowa — In mere days, Iowa voters will turn their attention to the holidays. So for the trio of candidates languishing at the bottom of the presidential polls, this is desperation time.
“We still have the chance to send a message,” Rick Santorum pleaded to a few dozen voters in a pizza place in rural Carroll, his voice rising as an old woman sitting near him closed her eyes, perhaps to sleep. “If the results of Iowa are inconclusive, we’ve failed to send a message, and if we’ve failed to send a message, we’ve wasted time.” When he finished, his small entourage moved on to the next town, and then the next.
The candidates who have spent the most time in Iowa — former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum, Rep. Michelle Bachmann and, lately, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — are faring the worst as the Jan. 3 caucuses approach. There are multiple reasons — money and gaffes among them.
But one key reason for their shared disappointment looms: The three are locked in competition for the state’s huge block of evangelical voters, which represented 60 percent of caucus voters in 2008. Potent when undivided, it risks becoming insignificant when fractured in so many shards. Evangelical leaders have tried to push their flock in a common direction, but can’t even decide for themselves on one candidate.
“I think people are having a hard time making a distinction among them,” said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa. “Most of them are fine with any of those three candidates.”
On Tuesday came more evidence of that difficulty, as the board of the influential evangelical group The Family Leader said it would remain neutral in the race. Bob Vander Plaats, the group’s president, and Chuck Hurley, the president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, endorsed Santorum. The two men, who helped Mike Huckabee pull off a surprise win in Iowa in 2008 with evangelical help, cited Santorum’s anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage views as their rationale.
Vander Plaats called Bachmann on Saturday and asked her to consider forming a ticket with Perry or Santorum to avoid splitting the evangelical vote, according to a source with knowledge of the call. He said the candidates could decide who took the top spot, and told her he called Perry and Santorum and made the same pitch.
Vander Plaats said he did not urge Bachmann to drop out, but he did not respond to a question about the ticket-sharing account.
Other evangelical leaders have backed other candidates. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Tuesday picked up the endorsement of Donald E. Wildmon, the retired founder of the American Family Association, a national Christian group; Bachmann has netted endorsements from more than a hundred pastors and religious leaders in Iowa; Perry has the blessing of Texas mega church pastor Robert Jeffress.
The battle for endorsements has created deep schisms among some evangelical leaders. Rumors have swirled for weeks about heated deliberations at the Family Leader board meetings; when Hurley announced his endorsement, he said a friend had threatened to “burn Bob’s body, drag it through the streets and hang it from a bridge” if Vander Plaats didn’t endorse the right candidate.
All three of the candidates seeking evangelical support have emphasized their conservative credentials during visits to libraries and coffee shops and churches, part of the whistle-stop tours that are a hallmark of the Iowa caucuses, and are usually a prerequisite for doing well.
Perry kicked off a 44-city bus tour in mid-December, traversing the state in a black, red and blue bus with his name emblazoned on the front. It took him to local homes and to a mall built to look like the set of the 1962 film “The Music Man,” where Perry stood in front of the bright lights of television cameras to emphasize his executive experience.
Perry also visited two churches Sunday in northern Iowa, speaking to the congregation of the First Wesleyan Church in Charles City about the importance of bringing their values into the public arena.
“Somebody’s values are going to decide the issues of the day, whatever they may be,” he said. “The question is going to be, whose values? Is it going to be those of us of faith, or is it going to be somebody else’s values?”
Still, after the service, voter Peter Faust was torn between Santorum and Perry as he looks for someone who shares his conservative values, and who can stop the country’s “moral decay.”
“Some people say the political life should be separate from the personal,” Faust said. “But the fact is, if they were faithful to their wives, and they’re family men, they’ll be faithful to the public.”
Bachmann barnstormed Iowa in her own blue bus, from church to a sports bar, through pizza joints and restaurants in tiny towns in northern Iowa. She pitched herself as the candidate who could attract tea party backers, evangelicals, mainstream Republicans, independents and Democrats.
Of the three candidates, Santorum has spent the most time in Iowa, visiting all 99 counties, and holding hundreds of events.
Some leaders have hoped that the splintered support might lead the candidates to form an evangelical dream team, perhaps deciding who would be the best president, vice president, attorney general. Together, they note, their poll numbers rival those of more popular candidates.
“Put those numbers together, you have a dynamo candidate coming out of Iowa,” Vander Plaats said at Tuesday’s endorsement speech.
However unlikely that is, this year’s crop of candidates has at least drawn attention, a fact that some evangelical leaders say could boost the number of socially conservative leaders and voters in the future.
“A lot of candidates who had a lot to offer showed up in Iowa and said ‘I am the candidate of the pro-family movement’ — and the voters agreed,” said Ralph Reed, a longtime leader who now runs the Faith and Family Coalition. “It’s not that voters didn’t find a candidate — the fact is, they not only found a candidate, they found lots of them.”