Perry no shoo-in with evangelicals in Iowa

Posted Friday, Nov. 18, 2011  comments  Print Reprints

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DES MOINES, Iowa - When Gov. Rick Perry held a revival-style day of prayer in fasting in Houston in early August, he seemed certain become a dominant contender for the support of politically-engaged Christian conservatives as he headed toward his entry into the 2012 presidential race.

But Perry's misfortunes on the campaign trail have changed the equation.

Just as he is no longer a front-runner for the Republican nomination, the Texas governor is also facing stiff competition in the race to corral social conservatives and evangelical Christians who will play an influential role in the selection of the eventual nominee.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in Iowa, where social conservatives and evangelicals make up at as much as 60 percent of the likely participants in the state's Jan. 3 caucuses.

Perry, who has lapsed into single digits in many polls, desperately needs a strong showing in Iowa to re-energize his campaign.

"Perry has to establish himself as a viable candidate," said Lee Miring off, director of the Marist College Poll. "To be a viable candidate he has to do well in Iowa. And to do well in Iowa, he has to do well with evangelical Christians."

Perry and five of his rivals will reach out to evangelicals and social conservatives at a candidate forum in Des Moines on Saturday that one organizer describes as an effort to find a conservative alternative to former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

Romney, often depicted as the dominant contender for the Republican nomination, was invited but already had plans to campaign in New Hampshire, said his spokesman.

Moderator Frank Luntz, who conducts political focus groups and often appears on Fox News, said the event "has the potential to be the most important forum of the primary presidential campaign." Called the Thanksgiving Family Forum, the two-hour gathering begins at 4 p.m. in Des Moines' First Federated Church and is expected to draw more than 1,500 prospective caucus-goers.

Perry, who campaigned in Iowa earlier this week, also spoke before more than 400 pastors at a closed two-day discussion in Des Moines. Two other candidates, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also addressed the "pastors and pews" event, according to participants.

The briefing and others like it in key states this year are the outgrowth of a mobilization campaign started in the 1990s by political activist David Lane to encourage pastors to take a more aggressive role in public policy and political issues.

Lane, who attended the briefing, predicts that Christian conservatives, who have long been a force in Republican politics, have the muscle to determine whom the party will pick to run against Democratic President Barack Obama.

"If they engage, they'll play a large role," said Lane, who was national finance director for Perry's prayer event. "They'll decide who's going to be the nominee."

Perry, who openly talks about his Christian faith and has remained close to social conservatives throughout his nearly 11 years as governor, was touted as a likely favorite of the Christian right even before he officially entered the race on Aug.13.

His prayer event, called The Response, drew more than 30,000 to Houston's Reliant Stadium in what was billed as a non-political day of spiritualism to help Americans deal with a nation in crisis.

Iowa pastors are planning a similar event - also known as The Response - that will be held Dec. 6 in the River of Life Ministries in Cedar Rapids and live-streamed to at least 400 churches across the state.

Despite the international attention that Perry drew from the Houston event, the Texas governor's fall in the polls has apparently prompted many Christian conservatives to explore other options in their search for a potential candidate to back.

Experts say the chase for Christian conservative votes is up for grabs among the "non-Romney" alternatives who will be present at Saturday's forum.

The participants will include Perry, Paul, Gingrich, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, all of whom boast varying degrees of support from social conservatives and tea party activists. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is not competing in Iowa, will not attend.

Problems with Romney

Social conservatives made their mark in the 2008 caucuses by rallying behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister was became the surprise winner.

Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader, the host organization for Saturday's forum, said he wants social conservatives this year to unite behind an alternative to Romney.

Vander Plaats, who successfully led a campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of same sex- marriage, says leading conservatives consider Romney too moderate and inconsistent on key issues.

"Any one of these candidates has an opportunity to move the numbers and the one who is successful at doing that is probably going to win (the) caucuses and become the eventual alternative to Romney, " said Vander Plaats, who was state chairman of Huckabee's campaign.

"I believe Romney could actually win the Iowa caucuses because the conservatives basically fragmented their support between five or six different candidates and if they don't coalesce around a particular candidate, you could see Mitt Romney walk out of here (as the winner)."

Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said the former Massachusetts governor appeals to a broad section of Iowa voters and is "extremely competitive" in the state. He will return to Iowa after a Tuesday night Republican debate, said Williams.

Vander Plaats said Perry was hurt by "a couple of things" - a relatively late entry in the race and an instant rise to the top that made him a target. "He was thrown into the deep end of the pool and he was just getting started," said Vander Plaats.

'Fresh start' for Perry

Nevertheless, he said the Texas governor can make a "fresh start" at Saturday's forum by portraying himself as a candidate with impeccable conservative credentials and the financial resources "to beat Mitt Romney."

He advised Perry to tell the audience: "You can trust me. I'm a conservative. I don't just come to you. I come through you."

David Barton, an Aledo-based Christian historian and former co-chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said Iowa is just the starting point for a display of social conservative power in the critical early contests.

Social conservatives are also a force in South Carolina and, to a lesser degree, Florida, he said.

The influence of the Christian right has ebbed and flowed and the movement has become more decentralized in recent years.

Republican strategists complained that as many as 4 million social conservatives were AWOL in the 2000 election, but a targeted effort by strategist Karl Rove and others four years later propelled them back into the fold in 2004 to help then-President George W. Bush win re-election over Democrat John Kerry.

Evangelical voters turned out in record numbers in 2010 to fuel Republican victories in state and national elections that dealt a devastating blow to President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats.

Exit polls showed that 28.8 million Christian conservatives - 32 percent of all voters - turned out last year, the highest recorded percentage of any election, Barton said.

Although evangelicals, including Hispanics and African-Americans, also support Democrats, most vote for Republicans. In 2010, Barton said, 77 percent voted for Republicans, up 7 percent from four years earlier.

This report contains includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief, 512-476-4294

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