LEBANON, Ohio-On the Sunday evening before Super Tuesday, 20 Christians gathered in the finished basement of Debby Dankworth's contemporary wood home in the small town of Lebanon, Ohio.
Sitting on chairs, couches, and stools clustered under a wall decorated with deer antlers, the group began with prayer, and an invitation by Dankworth: "Let's talk about presidential candidates." Randy Dunlavy, a local machine operator, answered with a question: "Are any worth voting for?"
So began a three-hour meeting of the Christian Conservative Movement, a local grassroots group that meets twice a month to talk politics. During the 2010 midterm elections, the group distributed 40,000 voting guides in two counties. That year, Republicans defeated five incumbent Democrats in the U.S. House and swept every statewide office.
The group has also helped spread information about a pro-life bill in the state legislature that would prohibit abortions if a doctor detects a fetal heartbeat. "All we are trying to do is reach the Christian masses," said Dankworth.
Her group is not alone. In August 2009 Ohio pastors began a 24/7 statewide prayer network that includes prayer for government. Nearly 500 of those Ohio pastors held a summit in February.
But while enthusiasm is strong among many Christians in the swing state of Ohio, the question remains: Will evangelicals be as engaged in the presidential battle this fall if their top GOP choice doesn't win the nomination?
At the Sunday meeting in Dankworth's home, members wondered if Mitt Romney would appoint pro-life judges, and compared Obamacare with the former Massachusetts governor's state healthcare law. They examined Ron Paul's reluctance to engage the international stage, Newt Gingrich's "silver tongue," and Rick Santorum's lack of money. Albert Jeffers, who works for a local retail store, concluded: "Every one of these candidates has baggage. There is not a perfect one."
Still, most in the group backed Santorum. In the primary two days later, 47 percent of Ohio voters who described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians supported Santorum, while 30 percent backed Romney. But the Sunday group agreed on something else: In the face of threats to religious liberty, more Christians should become involved in politics.
That's not what Dankworth, 64, learned as a child. "I was told politics were so corrupt that you just couldn't go there," she said. But during the 2008 elections, the interior designer couldn't find information on candidates running for office, so she made her own list and shared it with neighbors. In the spring of 2009, Dankworth began holding the meetings.
But such conservatives groups face tough competition from Team Obama. The Democrat-backed Organizing for America reopened operations in Ohio in March 2009. Obama has visited the state 18 times as president, and his campaign has contacted about 650,000 Ohio voters.
Counteracting that outreach is one reason why Lonnie Vestal, a Baptist-trained Pentecostal pastor, spent the day before Super Tuesday knocking on doors in support of Santorum at a neighborhood in Mason, Ohio.
Vestal, 36, is a first-time political volunteer. He is worried that Obamacare will ruin the nation's economy, and he calls refreshing Santorum's candid support of pro-family beliefs in the face of hostile media scrutiny.
This is the fourth time he has knocked on doors in the last three weeks. But it hasn't gotten any easier. "I don't think you'll get a good reception here," said a lady at the first door Vestal tried. "There is a no solicitation sign." Vestal shrugged it off with a chuckle.
Carrying a stack of two-sided Santorum handouts, Vestal walked around the neighborhood with a herringbone fedora pulled low to protect his head from a cold wind. But he wore no winter coat and removed his tie to appear more casual. He avoided walking on the grass and knocked on doors first before pressing doorbells.
During Vestal's visit to about a dozen homes in this neighborhood 20 miles north of Cincinnati, he encountered a handful of undecided voters. But Romney supporters edged out Santorum supporters. "I want someone with business background," said one man. "I've had enough of Washington stuff." Another man told Vestal that he thinks Romney "will pick up more votes from everybody." Vestal gently prodded the Romney supporters, but didn't linger long at any door.
The next day Romney beat Santorum 41 percent to 34 percent in the surrounding county.
While just 9 percent of Ohio primary voters said they would only vote Republican if their candidate wins the nomination, it is unclear how many evangelical and Tea Party Republicans will continue with their grassroots legwork if that happens.
That's a critical question for the Romney campaign since 47 percent of voters in the Ohio primary described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians.
"If Santorum wins I'm in it for the duration," Vestal said about his volunteering. "If it winds up being Romney ... I honestly don't know if I can go out and knock on doors for Romney. I simply don't believe him. What would I say?"