URBANDALE, Iowa — A prominent Christian conservative group in Iowa is not endorsing a Republican candidate for president, underscoring the divisions among influential social conservatives in the state.
The group's top two leaders said Tuesday they are backing former Sen. Rick Santorum, giving the little-known Pennsylvania Republican a lift as he works to break through in the Jan. 3 caucuses.
"I really believe he could be the Huckabee in this race," Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, said of Santorum, likening him to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Republican caucus winner.
Vander Plaats, a former candidate for governor, formed the Family Leader, a Christian political advocacy group, last year with the hope of establishing it as a power player in the 2012 caucuses.
But the group's board members, after hosting a series of candidate events around the state including a five-candidate forum in Des Moines last month, failed to unite behind a candidate.
Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley, president of the affiliated Iowa Family Policy Center, said they were endorsing Santorum on their own, and urged civility in an internal struggle among social conservatives that has become heated.
"I do regret that one erstwhile friend and culture warrior has threatened to, quote, burn Bob's body, drag it through the street and hang it from a bridge, unquote, if Bob doesn't endorse who that person wants him to endorse," Hurley told reporters.
Vander Plaats and the group had been pressured by an anonymous group called Iowans for Christian Leadership not to back former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has courted the faith community aggressively but stirs doubt among some in light of his admitted marital infidelity and two divorces.
Their endorsement was seen as a help to Santorum, who has campaigned doggedly in Iowa — the only one to tag all 99 counties — but with little fanfare. He has picked up the backing of ministers of large evangelical churches in Sioux City and the Des Moines area.
"He's the one candidate who's not caught his wave yet," Vander Plaats said. "But every place I go, I hear, 'What do you think about this Rick Santorum?'"
Santorum, a longtime crusader against abortion rights and gay marriage in Congress, has reached out to pastors and Christian home-school advocates, part of the support base for Huckabee's winning caucus campaign in Iowa four years ago.
Unlike then, the 2012 field has a number of candidates aggressively courting these voters in Iowa, which has divided them and fed the fluidity in the race for the Jan. 3 caucuses, which polls show up for grabs.
For example, the American Family Association, endorsed Gingrich on Tuesday. He was influential in helping the group seed a campaign in Iowa last year to oppose the retention of three state Supreme Court judges who were part of the unanimous 2009 decision allowing gay marriage in Iowa.
Vander Plaats and Hurley endorsed Huckabee's 2008 campaign, and helped lead the campaign to oust the three Iowa judges last year.
"This means so much more to our campaign," said Santorum, who has polled in the single digits in Iowa. "If their work on behalf of Gov. Huckabee four years ago is any indication, I have no doubt they will be a terrific catalyst for our campaign."