Santorum and the Evangelical Civil War in Iowa

Evangelicals are in a civil war in Iowa. If they could unite behind a candidate, they could defeat Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in the Iowa caucuses, but they can’t. Part of the problem is that three candidates are running for evangelical support but Iowa simply isn’t big enough for the three of them. They’re splitting the vote. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum are all making a play for the social conservatives they need to propel them onward. In 2008, sixty percent of the participants in the Iowa caucuses were evangelical.

Eight days ago Rick Santorum won the personal endorsements of two evangelical leaders–Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of the Family Leader, and Chuck Hurley, President of the Iowa Family Policy Center. The endorsements may have been just enough to push Santorum up in the polls–at Bachmann’s expense. Vander Plaats asked Bachmann to drop out and endorse one of the social conservatives.

The Bachmann team is simply imploding with the defection of a top aide to the Ron Paul camp. She herself has said that it would take nothing less than a “miracle” to win. When you have to keep insisting that you aren’t dropping out–it may be time to drop out. Look to Bachmann to exit stage left after Iowa. The question becomes who will she endorse.

Three new polls–today’s NBC/Marist poll, yesterday’s Rasmussen poll, CNN/Time/ORIC poll–show Santorum moving into third place. This is good new for Santorum. Conservative Republican candidates tend to out-perform in Iowa while moderate Republican candidates tend to under-perform. If this holds, Santorum is effectively in a three-way tie with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. He is the only one of the candidates to visit all ninety-nine of Iowa counties.

Unlike Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansa,s to whom he is frequently compared, Santorum is a northeasterner, a Pennsylvanian. His appeal may be limited beyond working-class Catholics and Midwestern evangelicals. He’s at 2.7% in South Carolina. Moreover, even if Santorum were to win Iowa–a big if–he has essentially no money and no organization in any other state.

Expect to see Rick Perry start a media blitz against Rick Santorum, which, indeed, he has already begun, releasing a radio ad. If Bachmann drops out, Santorum is all that stands between Perry and winning evangelical voters. Rick Santorum spent sixteen years in office, after all, and that leaves a paper trail.

Despite his social conservative bona fides, Santorum was anything but a fiscal conservative, as Erick Erickson points out over at Red State.

  • He supported steel tariffs in Pennsylvania….
  • He supported No Child Left Behind.
  • He supported the prescription drug benefit.
  • He supported the Bridge to Nowhere. In fact, according to Club for Growth, “Santorum had the audacity to vote to continue funding the Bridge to Nowhere rather than send the money to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.”

Those kind of attack ads write themselves, and you can be sure that Barack Obama will rest at nothing to mention Santorum’s support for the Bridge to Nowhere over the blacks who suffered in Katrina.

Santorum stands ready to defend those earmarks, but calls his voting in favor of a new drug entitlement a “mistake.” Santorum was crushed in his re-election bid by eighteen points in 2006.

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