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Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall

Elimination round

Campaign 2012 | An Iowa family values organization narrows its choices to four GOP candidates

DES MOINES, Iowa-Republican presidential hopefuls Ron Paul and Herman Cain lost out on the possibility of an endorsement by an Iowa family values group, despite their standing among the top four in the state's polls.

The move by The Family Leader is part of an effort by the voting bloc that won Iowa for Mike Huckabee in 2008 to unite behind a single conservative candidate, and it comes as the campaigns are poised for the last four weeks of frantic electioneering between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The Iowa caucus is the first Tuesday after New Year's Day. Although the organization still has several other candidates to choose from, their already-known opposition to Mitt Romney leaves only Newt Gingrich among the current top four in the polls.

"We're not looking at the polls to make our decision," said Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader. "We're looking at their principles, and at their principled vision."

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Both Paul and Cain participated in The Family Leader's forum in Des Moines on Saturday (see "Table talk," Nov. 21) and are among six hopefuls actively trying to appeal to Iowa's social conservatives. The organization's endorsement committee discussed the candidates for about three-and-a-half hours late Monday, Vander Plaats said, narrowing its choices to those best "articulating a worldview that we can embrace," which includes Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Gingrich. In an effort to derail Romney's bid for the GOP nomination, the group expects to choose from its final four in the coming weeks.

The Family Leader disagrees with Paul's stance on same-sex marriage, which he considers an issue of states' rights, and the organization has a general "presidential readiness" concern regarding Cain. The endorsement committee did not discuss public accusations of sexual harassment against Cain. But Vander Plaats pointed out that Gingrich's personal past must be further weighed in terms of repentance and maturity.

Iowa's unpredictable political landscape has changed since Bachmann surged in mid-August. Perry followed her to the top of the polls, then Cain, who had to fend off public accusations by two women. Romney, too, has steadily ranked near the top of the polls as the others have risen and fallen, with Paul seeing recent gains. Gingrich, once counted out and not even opening an Iowa headquarters until late November, has seized the latest wave.

Darrell Kearney, who has been involved in Iowa Republican politics for 47 years, said the state's trends are largely the same as the national outlook and are based on debates and social media influences. This marks a change from past campaigns' emphasis on organizing the state's 1,774 precincts.

"It's all pretty much a jump ball," said Doug Gross, an Iowa attorney and GOP strategist.

On a mid-November Friday afternoon, Margaret Sundberg of Des Moines stopped by Cain's Iowa headquarters to volunteer. A Huckabee enthusiast in 2008, Sundberg is still disappointed that the former Arkansas governor did not run again, but she's calling a list of his former backers on Cain's behalf. Sundberg is convinced that the harassment accusations should not stick to Cain. "I know that anyone is susceptible to sin," she said, but her belief is unshaken that Cain is a reputable man.

In the weeks after the accusations, Cain's momentum flattened, but he has retained enough core support to remain among the top tier of candidates. Like Sundberg, many Iowans didn't rush to judgment. "My sense of that is, if you were already on board the Cain train, you're staying on board," said Brent Hoffman, a Sioux City Christian conservative. While Cain lost some appeal to fence-sitters, said Sac County's GOP chairwoman Ann Trimble-Ray, his voters like the fact that he's not the establishment candidate. "Those are folks who look at most media with a very skeptical eye," she said.

Cain's campaign contends that the grassroots activity on social media in the state hasn't missed a beat, and volunteer enthusiasm hasn't suffered. An effect on polls "wouldn't be unexpected with the heyday the media's had," said Lisa Lockwood, Cain's Iowa spokeswoman. "That's not what his true grassroots supporters want to focus on."

Kearney, among those voicing new enthusiasm for Gingrich, said the former House speaker gained traction after moments such as when he made a point of complimenting each of his opponents at the Iowa GOP dinner last month. "He's the one guy everybody likes even if they're not supporting him," Kearney said. "He's everybody's second choice, and he's not badmouthing other candidates."

For 30 years, the rule has held that only three candidates emerge realistically from the Iowa caucus. The one exception is the most recent. The 2008 GOP nominee John McCain finished fourth in Iowa, but it was close enough for his campaign to spin it as a third-place tie.

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