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Evangelicals Vet the GOP Field in Iowa

Joyce Russell/IPR
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Fall Fundraiser

Eight Republican candidates for President were in Des Moines last night, vying for the votes of Christian conservatives at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual fall banquet. 

Some evangelicals say it’s hard to win the Iowa caucuses without their support but so far they have not coalesced behind a single candidate.  

Some have chosen sides.  Jeff Newell of Granger waved a sign for Texas Senator Ted Cruz as hundreds of activists filed in to the Knapp center at the fairgrounds.  

“I think Christians are getting a raw deal,” Newell says.   

Newell says  abortion and same-sex marriage are the  issues getting him involved this year.   But it was hard to distinguish among the candidates in the big field on those and other conservative priorities.  

Billionaire businessman Donald Trump earned skepticism from evangelicals when he said in July he never asked God for forgiveness.    He came to the banquet prepared

”I brought my Bible,” Trump says.  “See?    I'm better than you thought.”

Trump was well-received.  So were Senator Cruz and Louisiana Senator Bobby Jindal.   

Jindal took on Trump head-on.

“I like the idea of Donald Trump,” Jindal says.  “I like an outsider.  I like somebody who takes on the Washington establishment.  But the reality is Donald Trump is a narcissist.”

Some Christian conservatives who are supporting Trump have no delusions about the weakness of his evangelical bonafides.   Former pastor Steve Harvey, who’s now with Hope Ministries in Des Moines, supported former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee eight years ago.  He hopes to be a precinct captain for Donald Trump this year.

 “He struggles to talk about asking God for forgiveness,” Harvey says.  “That’s a huge difference from Mike Huckabee.  I  have some great Christian  brothers and sisters have a hard time when I'm not supporting Ted Cruz who they believe is a born again true blue Christian.”

Harvey says conservatives have elected lots of Republicans who haven’t performed well in Washington and Trump’s his man because he’s not a politician. On Trump’s three marriages, Harvey says we all make mistakes and we all deserve forgiveness.  

Cruz got some of the loudest cheers of the night.    One moderator referred to him as President Cruz.  

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker skipped an event in Michigan to be in Des Moines, but he did not especially tailor his remarks to the Christian crowd.   Caucus winner four years ago,  evangelical favorite former Pennsylvania Governor Rick Santorum, has been struggling to get traction this year.   He urged the activists to support him again. 

“I remind everybody I was two per-cent in the national  polls a week before I won the Iowa caucuses,” Santorum says.   “You did a good job last time.  Repeat.  God bless you.”

Few people question the importance of the evangelical vote.

“I would say it’s a very, very powerful vote in the state,” says Kane Robinson, former chair of the Iowa Republican Party and former President of the National Rifle Association.

Robinson predicts one candidate will emerge as the clear favorite for Christian conservatives.  

He says Trump is getting a substantial amount of support right now.

“Eventually people will drop off and it’s going to coalesce around somebody,” Robinson says.  “It may  be him, it may be somebody else.  It’s always worked its way down at the end.”  

But other activists say it’s hard to see how anyone is going to shake down as the favorite.   A Des Moines register poll says most evangelicals hope they will coalesce behind one candidate so their influence in the Iowa caucuses remains strong.