Image: Michele Bachmann
Nati Harnik  /  AP
Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., campaigns in Denison, Iowa, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011.
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updated 10/14/2011 11:18:29 AM ET 2011-10-14T15:18:29

Four years ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses partly by locking up the support of evangelical pastors, the former Baptist minister's brethren and a potent voting bloc within the state's influential Christian conservatives.

Today, Iowa's increasingly political pastors are up for grabs, divided on whom to support from a GOP field that features several candidates who call themselves born-again Christians.

"More pastors are engaged than four years ago," said Jeff Mullen, who leads one of the Des Moines area's largest evangelical churches. "But there are more choices."

And all have come calling.

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Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a political product of her state's evangelical conservative movement, has met regularly with groups of pastors across Iowa since before she officially entered the race. But they're also being pursued by businessman Herman Cain, who is an associate pastor at his Atlanta church, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose first stop in Iowa as a presidential prospect was to the Des Moines area's most politically active church.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who hosted an evangelical gathering that drew 30,000 to Houston in August before becoming a candidate, met with Iowa church leaders last month and during a recent visit to the heavily Christian northwest corner of Iowa. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has appeared at private pastor conferences in Iowa where he won some respect for his admission of personal failings during his two previous marriages.

Story: Romney working Iowa quietly for caucus surprise

Unlike past campaigns, the lack of an imposing establishment candidate in this race has opened a door for more candidates who appeal to the party's socially conservative base. Tea party supporters, new factors in the presidential nominating campaign, also largely share the evangelicals' social values.

"While we've called it in the past social conservatives or Christian or religious right, it's gotten much broader than that," said Greg Mueller, a Republican consultant who was a top adviser to Pat Buchanan's presidential campaigns. "And I think it's invited candidates into the race that see there's a connection there."

It's possible that such a conservative candidate will rise in coming weeks — and get the pastors to coalesce behind his or her candidacy.

But should pastors — and, by extension, evangelical voters — remain divided heading into the January caucuses, it's possible that Mitt Romney could emerge from the pack by rallying backers who put job and economic issues above social causes. Romney does receive some support from evangelicals, but he's unlikely to win over most of them. Many view him skeptically because of his Mormon faith and his past support of gay rights and abortion rights.

"A lot of pastors and social conservative activists are looking at each other and asking, 'What horse do we bet on here?' My sense is right now it's fairly muddled," said Ralph Reed, founder of the national Christian Coalition who now heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Influential evangelical defends Romney, but says Mormonism's not Christian

"If Cain, Perry, Bachmann, Santorum and Gingrich split the social conservative vote, Romney could gain critical mass among party regulars. The polling backs that up. It could get very interesting," Reed added.

His group is hosting a forum in Des Moines on Oct. 22 where several of the candidates are slated to appear. Perry and Gingrich plan to speak at a pastor's conference in Florida two days earlier.

While pastors are power brokers with evangelicals across the country, their support can sometimes come back to haunt a candidate.

Perry has tried to distance himself from supporter Robert Jeffress, a senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, after the minister called the Mormon religion, Romney's faith, a cult.

And Barack Obama, as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008, denounced inflammatory comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, of his home church Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

This year, evangelical pastors' impact may be felt the most in Iowa, where exit polls show that born-again Christians comprise roughly 45 to 60 percent of the GOP caucus base.

Video: Gov. Perry: I’m not worried about polls (on this page)

Iowa pastors have long been involved in politics but more became active after the Iowa Supreme Court's 2009 decision allowing gay marriage, which incensed many. The ruling also has intensified the scrutiny of the social conservative candidates.

The pastors see faults in all.

While Bachmann's aides have been vigilant about reaching out to pastors, she has developed a reputation for being late and has kept some pastors waiting for scheduled telephone calls. Some never came. And, pastors privately say, she faces doubts from some members of the evangelical clergy who oppose women in executive positions and others who question whether Muslim leaders would respect a woman president.

Santorum has come under scrutiny for his endorsement of former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican who supported abortion rights. The endorsement is a turn-off on an issue at the very heart of the social conservative movement. Pastors have questioned him about it.

And some have objected strongly to Perry's 2007 executive order requiring school-age girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer.

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Said Cary Gordon, pastor of a large Sioux City congregation: "Some clergy that might have been on his bandwagon might be having second thoughts."

No one running in 2012 has the profile of Huckabee, the 2008 caucus winner whose profile on conservative social causes and preaching style were stamped by the years he spent in the pulpit in Arkansas before entering politics.

"There was a groundswell for Gov. Huckabee, who believed in scripture unlike any candidate I've seen," said Kerry Jech, pastor of a large evangelical church in Marshalltown who supported Huckabee in 2008 and has been courted by several 2012 candidates. None have sold him.

"It's hard to know who to support this time," Jech said.

While Huckabee won Iowa, the state was anything a springboard for success. His political star began to fall as the presidential delegate-selection caucuses and primaries wore on through the spring of 2008.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gov. Perry: I’m not worried about polls

  1. Transcript of: Gov. Perry: I’m not worried about polls

    LAUER: All right, Kelly O'Donnell , thank you very much . Texas Governor Rick Perry joins us now. Governor Perry , good morning. Good to see you.

    Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): Good morning, Matt. How are you?

    LAUER: I'm doing fine, thanks. We have a lot to talk about, let's jump right in. Back in August you jumped into this race. Immediately you had 38 percent of support from likely primary voters. Today that support is at 16 percent, according to the latest NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll. What happened?

    Gov. PERRY: Well, polls are going to go up and down. I mean, it's going to be a long race, so I don't worry too much about polls. I know a lot of people obsess with them and watch with them and talk about them. I'm more worried about those people out there who don't have a job in America . And that's the reason I'm in Pittsburgh today laying out a jobs plan that clearly shows within 100 days when I'm the president of the United States , without having to deal with Congress , opening up those federal lands ...

    LAUER: Right.

    Gov. PERRY: ...and waters, pulling back those regulations that are killing jobs, and rebuilding the EPA , we can do that and get 1.2 million working.

    LAUER: And I want to talk more...

    Gov. PERRY: That's what Americans are concerned about.

    LAUER: I want to talk more about your plan, your economic plan in a second. You say polls go up and down, though, but you have lost more than half of your support in about a seven-week period and I'm wondering if you think you can put your finger on any particular reason why that's happening.

    Gov. PERRY: Well, I've run for office now three times as the governor of the state of Texas , my numbers have been up, they've been down. And again, I don't worry about those. I go out every day and try to do my job, in this case laying out a jobs plan so that someone sitting around the living room who doesn't have a job, doesn't have the dignity of a job, knows that there's somebody on that stage that's going to focus on creating the environment where they can get back to work and take care of their family.

    LAUER: And I get where you're trying to take me here, Governor, but I do want to talk about the comments that your wife, Anita , made on Thursday. She said that you are being brutalized by your opponents and your own party. Do you feel you've been singled for unfair criticism anything more than any of the other candidates have endured during this early primary process?

    Gov. PERRY: Family members always take these campaigns a little more personally than the candidates do. I've been shot at and missed and shot at and hit for 20 years running for public office . And being the chief executive officer of the state of Texas we have our ups and downs. But the fact is those are just distractions. Americans want to hear a conversation about who's going to get this country back working again. And that's what I'm staying focused on.

    LAUER: But...

    Gov. PERRY: So I hope at 10:00 Eastern time this morning that you got cameras there covering a speech that is truly going to get America focused on the most important issue of this campaign.

    LAUER: And we absolutely...

    Gov. PERRY: That is getting this country back working again.

    LAUER: And we will have cameras there. But I want -- I'm sorry to keep harping on this...

    Gov. PERRY: Good on you.

    LAUER: ...but when Anita said she thinks so much of it is that "I think they look at him because of his faith," I feel it's a little ironic because the issue of faith was really introduced, the can of worms was opened by a surrogate of your own campaign while introducing you recently who said that you are a genuine follower of Jesus Christ , and then Pastor Jeffress went out to the hallway and said that the Mormon religion is a cult and that Mitt Romney is not a true Christian. So isn't it a bit hypocritical to say you're being targeted because of your faith when it was a surrogate for your campaign that introduced faith in the first place ?

    Gov. PERRY: Well, I think you're stretching it to say that he was a surrogate. He was picked and he made his comments on his own. We've distanced ourselves from those comments. I've clearly said that I did not agree with his comments and that stands on its face. But if we're going to spend the time in the campaign defending what someone who has endorsed us has said out there in the public, President Obama 's going to spend a lot of time talking about defending people who are saying things about him that he probably doesn't stand by. So again, these are all distractions, Matt , and I understand the issue of distractions. We've got to get this country focused on getting back to work.

    LAUER: You talk about your economic plan...

    Gov. PERRY: And we're laying out a plan today that does that.

    LAUER: One of the centerpieces of that plan is energy production, opening up federal lands and waters to energy exploration. That's going to take a long time. The lawsuits alone for that are going to go through courts for years. How's it going to help in the short term getting people back to work?

    Gov. PERRY: Well, I'm not sure that you have to have that type of legal system that locks down the opening up of our federal lands and waters. We passed some significant tort reform in Texas ; I think you need to do that at the federal level to stop that type of activities. Shorten the permitting periods of time. What I would do is pull back all of these job-killing regulations that this administration has sent forward and sent forward in conjunction with an activist environmental community working hand-in-hand with this administration. And also build the EPA . Let it become an agency where you clearly have its appropriate role...

    LAUER: Right.

    Gov. PERRY: ...of making decisions between states , if there's conflicts, but allowing those decisions to flow back to the states . I'll promise you, men and women who are in the environmental divisions in the states know well better how to take care of those communities whether it's the air or the water. Their kids are living there, it's their future, it's their generations that they're taking care of.

    LAUER: Governor Rick Perry . Governor Perry , thank you for your time this morning. I appreciate it. I know you're very busy.

    Gov. PERRY: Thank you, Matt.

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