DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Evangelical activists are Iowa's most potent Republican voting bloc and the fight for their support is in full swing among the presidential candidates competing to emerge as a more conservative alternative to early front-runner Mitt Romney.
A half-dozen GOP contenders flocked to Iowa on Saturday in hopes of gaining any edge with this influential group barely 10 weeks before the state's Jan. 3 caucuses.
These voters have yet to rally around any single candidate aggressively courting them, seeking the kind of lift that carried former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to victory in the leadoff caucuses in 2008.
In fact, with 1,000 social conservatives expected to hear from six candidates late Saturday in Des Moines, there are deep divisions among these voters about where to throw their support.
"I don't see anyone galvanizing people like they did for Mike Huckabee," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "And I'd be lying if I told you that can change in one event."
Activists attending the coalition's forum at the Iowa State Fairgrounds awaited pitches from three candidates who have made the most aggressive appeals so far — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — as well as from three others in the field — businessman Herman Cain, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
The candidates planned campaign stops throughout the day, such as Perry's early pheasant hunting excursion with U.S. Rep. Steve King at the Loess Hills Hunting Preserve outside of Akron, a small town in the western part of the state.
Perry and King had breakfast at a lodge, where they talked for more than 30 minutes as two of King's sons and two of his grandchildren looked on. King hasn't endorsed a 2012 candidate and wouldn't commit to backing Perry. But hunting is "an instantaneous bond," King told reporters before the two went off.
The forum didn't draw Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has led national GOP polls all year and was in New Hampshire on Saturday. Despite an aggressive effort by the event's planners, he declined an invitation, in part because he is well-known in Iowa from his 2008 White House run and is skipping multicandidate gatherings in the state.
It's also true that he has had a touchy relationship with evangelical conservatives, many of whom are leery of Romney's Mormon faith and his changed positions on social issues such as gay and abortion rights.
He has attended national meetings of conservatives, including the Values Voter Summit in Washington this month, but is emphasizing economic, rather than social issues.
In his absence, the stage at the fairgrounds will feature some rivals who can claim ties to the religious right, but not the commitment yet that Huckabee earned four years ago.
Polls four years ago showed that about half of Iowa's GOP caucus-goers considered themselves born-again Christians.
Bachmann built her campaign around outreach to conservative Christian pastors, who turned out in the hundreds in helping her win the Iowa presidential straw poll in August. But influential pastors say the group is divided, considering Bachmann's campaign has lost some of its steam, while Perry and Santorum have stepped up their appeals.
Likewise, Christian home-school activists, a well-networked group that worked behind the scenes for Huckabee, apparently have no preferred candidate.
Perry gained attention for a national day of prayer he hosted in Houston in August. But some of his luster with evangelical voters has faded in light of his 2007 executive order requiring school-age girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer.
Santorum, an anti-abortion leader while in the Senate, has impressed social conservative leaders in Iowa, but trails Perry and Bachmann in fundraising.
Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition: http://ffciowa.com