Two influential Iowa conservatives added a late twist to the unpredictable Iowa caucus by endorsing Rick Santorum for president.
Iowa's The Family Leader on Tuesday declined to endorse a Republican candidate as an organization, an acknowledgement that conservatives in the state will not recapture the unity they experienced with Mike Huckabee's caucus win in 2008. Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley, the two most prominent leaders of the family values group, instead personally endorsed Santorum.
"Their reach and influence covers all corners of Iowa, and I know they did not take this endorsement lightly," Santorum said. "This means so much more to our campaign. If their work on behalf of Gov. Huckabee four years ago is any indication, I have no doubt they will be a terrific catalyst for our campaign as we continue building momentum in Iowa. Now is the time for conservatives to unite so we can defeat Barack Obama."
Declining to criticize other GOP candidates and professing a friendship with Newt Gingrich, Vander Plaats said he came to his decision because Santorum is a consistent champion of conservative values, and whatever the subject, "He always brought it back to the family."
Conservative voters in Iowa have been divided in their support for the various Republican candidates, and Vander Plaats acknowledged similar divisions within The Family Leader board's deliberations. In its most recent meeting, the board, in deciding not to make a formal endorsement, came to the conclusion that The Family Leader should be looked upon as a standard-bearer of issues instead of a kingmaker of candidates. But Vander Plaats admitted that the board in the end was leaning heavily toward Santorum, a candidate with whom the board felt a certain kinship and one who did not just "tell us what we want to hear."
In a move that appeared designed to position him for the endorsement, Gingrich on Dec. 12 supplied The Family Leader with a statement on marriage but did not sign the group's "Marriage Vow." (See "Marriage, money, Iowa," Dec. 14.) The Family Leader's decision to endorse Santorum is not only a blow to Gingrich, but is also a setback for Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, and it further muddles efforts in Iowa to unite conservatives against Mitt Romney.
In the fluctuating Iowa political scene, four campaigns are competing for the support of social conservatives as they struggle to emerge from the steadier numbers of Romney and Ron Paul. Of those campaigns, Santorum's is the only one that has not yet had a significant spike in the polls. Bachmann, Perry and-most recently-Gingrich have each surged. Although Gingrich remains near the top of the polls, he has come under attack from opponents' TV ads and has been fighting a downward trend in support.
The campaigns of Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum have all sought to appeal to the divided values voters. With polls showing none of the three among the top tier, time is short for one of them to pull together enough support to go into other early states with momentum and beat out his or her rivals for the conservative vote.
Santorum, despite receiving backing from some of the same bloggers and activists that helped Huckabee in '08, trails Perry and Bachmann slightly in the most recent polls. The conservative former senator from Pennsylvania has had the most thorough effort in Iowa, visiting all 99 counties and attending more than 300 events in the state. While Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann are currently setting a busy pace in the state, Perry was the first to go on the air with significant television advertising. His ads join those of Romney and Paul in a barrage of spots now cluttering the Iowa airwaves.
The Iowa caucus will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 3.