Matt Rourke, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate in the Republican presidential candidates debate in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012.

As the field of candidates narrows and the election creeps ever closer, the Republican presidential debates are becoming not just more spirited, but more spiritual.

Faith, family and fidelity are becoming themes, and the media has taken notice.

"That's why Newt Gingrich points to his religious conversion when asked about cheating on his wife. It's why Mitt Romney highlights his 43-year marriage, and Rick Santorum is photographed with his seven smiling children," noted Meredith Heagney of the Columbus Dispatch. "Even long-shot candidate Ron Paul has released a 'statement of faith' saying that Jesus is his savior."

Romney is Mormon, while Gingrich and Santorum are both Catholic (Gingrich converted from Protestantism). Paul is an evangelical Christian.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a poll in January that said Republican and GOP-leaning voters are tipping toward Romney, with few differences among religious groups.

NPR did a live blog during the debate Thursday night, including a section on how religion would influence each candidate. It quoted Paul as saying his religious beliefs "affect my character and the way I treat people and how I live."

Romney said he "would also seek the guidance of Providence in making decisions."Gingrich claimed his very candidacy was driven in part by what he perceives as a "war against religion," especially Christianity, in the media. Presidents, he noted, "should go to God; they should seek guidance."

And the blog noted that Santorum called America the only nation with founding documents that include "God-given rights," adding that "faith has everything to do" with the decisions a president would make.

Religion has long been an issue in presidential elections and strong support from religious groups can make or break a candidate. Former Pres. Jimmy Carter's acknowledgement that he was "born again" helped him woo evangelical Christians in his bid for election in 1976. "Since then, evangelical Christian voters have been a major political consideration for Republicans and Democrats alike, says Kane Farabaugh of

"The tendency of candidates to emphasize their faith on the campaign trail is something former President Carter says is over-emphasized as the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination swings through conservative and religious southern states," she wrote.

Carter told her that he's less concerned about a candidate's specific faith than the "basic moral character, the basic principles put forward by the potential president."

LifeWay Research, a Christian research organization, polled on the topic in September. It found just over 16 percent of Americans said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who regularly shares religious beliefs. Another 30 percent said they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate expressing religious activity. And 28 percent said the don't care. The other 22 percent said it depends on the religion.

The survey noted that Americans 18-29 and 30-49 are more apt to select "depends on the religion." Those 65 and older are most likely to say a candidate's expression on religion wouldn't impact their choice.

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