Iowa's Path: GOP Contenders Court Evangelicals

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DES MOINES, Iowa - The 2012 presidential race is unofficially underway with potential candidates visiting key primary states. Many of them are already competing directly for the all-important evangelical vote, especially in places like Iowa and South Carolina.

When it comes to winning in both these states, political rule No. 1: you must court the evangelicals.

At last week's Faith and Freedom Coalition event near Des Moines, Iowa, the soon-to-be candidates were doing just that.

"We have people in Washington, D.C. who believe the unborn do not have a right to life. Yes they do!" former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the audience of roughly 1,500 evangelicals.

Candidate Lineup

Five of the expected presidential contenders took their first opportunity to reach that audience and they, along with the GOP, received a stark message on stage from Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

"My message to the national Republican Party tonight is real simple. If you turn your backs on the pro-family, pro-life constituency, and on the values that they stand for you will be consigned to permanent minority status," Reed said.

A long line of hopefuls is expected to compete for evangelical votes.

  • Gov. Pawlenty 
  • Former Sen. Rick Santorum 
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 
  • Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain
  • Former Louisianna Gov. Buddy Roemer

All five showed up last week. But don't forget familiar faces like:

  • Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee 
  • Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin
  • Possibly even Rep. Michele Bachmann

The Road through Iowa

When all is said and done, all of these candidates will eventually come to Iowa. It is where many presidential dreams begin and end.

Evangelicals play a crucial role in all of this because these candidates have to prove their "street cred." So they end up meeting, greeting, and talking about issues important to evangelicals.

Santorum has an early lead in Iowa, at least in the number of visits. Santorum hopes his record of being a strong defender of social issues will resonate here.

"It's one thing to give your social conservative speech and tell people what you believe in," he said. "It's another thing to go out and live it and lead it."

Evangelicals typically make up 60 percent of caucus goers in Iowa and it's about the same number in the early primary state of South Carolina too. That turnout could grow even more as the tea party comes back for round two on the national scene.

Making Their Pitch

In many ways, Christian conservatives and Tea Party activists strike similar chords, including their grassroots efforts at the beginning of election season. At the recent Iowa event, Reed spoke to Faith and Freedom volunteers in a private area telling them,

"The people in this room are the ones who make the Iowa faith and freedom coalition go," he said.

It's those volunteers and influential voters who presidential contenders want to reach. CBN News was present at a private reception as all five of the Iowa event participants attempted to court favor among this select evangelical audience.

  •  "I love you. I love what you stand for," Roemer told the volunteers assembled in the room.
  •  "I want to listen to the people of Iowa," Cain explained.
  •  "America is in trouble," Santorum announced.
  •  "If you want a European secular socialist you have a great incumbent president," Gingrich told the gathering,
  •  "We need to be a country that's turning toward God not away from God," Pawlenty chimed in to the crowd.

Getting in the Game

Each one of these candidates will have a full opportunity to make their case. Some, like Cain, take the direct approach.

"I'm a Baptist preacher," Cain told CBN News. While Cain may be a relative unknown, he knows how to reach this crucial audience.

"When he (President Obama) first became president and he went to Turkey to give a speech and declared that we were not a Christian nation," he explained. "Well I got news for the president: We are a Judeo-Christian nation and a lot of people want to keep it that way."

Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, is a familiar face. His three marriages might hurt his case with some voters, but the former House Speaker hopes his staunch defense of Judeo-Christian principles and his fight against radical Islam will outweigh other negatives.

"Our Judeo-Christian civilization is under attack from two fronts," he said. "On one front, you have a secular, atheist, elitism. And on the other front, you have radical Islamists. And both groups would like to eliminate our civilization if they could. For different reasons, but with equal passion."

Evangelical Homework

With so many candidates in the game, evangelical voters in Iowa and around the country will have their hands full.

"We have a lot of homework to do and I want to make sure that my vote is informed and the right one," one evangelical voter said.

Another voter told CBN News, "They're all going to be good competitors and we're lucky to have so many."

It is no accident that evangelical audiences like this are getting together. In less than two years, the Faith and Freedom Coalition has built a database of more than 20 million evangelical voters. They already have 400,000 members with organizations in 24 states, including the key early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

"We wanted to make sure we could have an impact on choosing the next president," Reed told CBN News. "And if you want to do that, you can't wait until the general election. You have to get engaged early."

Evangelical Impact

Evangelicals are definitely starting to get engaged in this 2012 race. On moral issues from rising debt to abortion and traditional marriage, Reed said evangelicals will have a major impact.

"We're not going to be silent, we're not going to be intimidated, and we're not going to go away," he said. "We're here to stay and we've earned our right to speak."

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David Brody is an Emmy Award-winning veteran news journalist who has interviewed many prominent national figures during his career of nearly 25 years. Currently, David covers the White House and interviews national newsmakers across the country.  Follow David on Twitter @TheBrodyFile and "like" him at Facebook.com/TheBrodyFile.