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No 'Perfect Candidate' Yet For Iowa Conservatives

<p>Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum on Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. Six GOP presidential candidates attended the banquet, seeking an edge in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus.</p>
Scott Olson
Getty Images

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum on Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. Six GOP presidential candidates attended the banquet, seeking an edge in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus.

Four years ago in the Iowa caucuses, evangelical voters rallied behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won an upset victory and shook up the Republican field in the process.

With the 2012 Iowa caucuses just over 10 weeks away, conservative Christian Republican voters in Iowa are still searching for a presidential candidate. Saturday night they sized up six GOP hopefuls at a banquet in Des Moines, sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

As dinner attendees made their way to long tables carrying paper plates of chicken, potatoes and vegetables, Texas Gov. Rick Perry navigated the aisles saying hello.

Near the serving line, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich posed for pictures. Across the way, former Sen. Rick Santorum shook hands, while Rep. Ron Paul worked the room.

Also appearing, but not until it was time for them to speak, were businessman Herman Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Each of these candidates considers evangelical voters a key part of their base. But Bill Gustoff, a Des Moines attorney and home-schooling advocate, says right now none seem poised to do what Huckabee did in 2008.

"He had lightening in a bottle, really. He had a lot of elements that we all liked that came together," he says. "This time I think you have some things you don't like about every candidate, and some things you really do like about every candidate. ... Nobody has just the exact mix of what we're looking for."

Joe Guisenger, 72, is a living, breathing example of a split voter. The Waukee resident wears two stickers: one for Perry and one for Santorum. When asked who he'll vote for, Guisenger adds yet another name to the mix: He says Cain is his first choice.

Cain was the candidate people were talking about most Saturday because of remarks he made Wednesday on CNN about abortion. In the interview, he seemed to suggest such decisions are up to families, even as he said abortion should be illegal. At the dinner, he attempted damage control, citing the unalienable rights included in the Declaration of Independence.

"Among these [rights] are life from conception. No abortions. No exceptions," he said.

The applause was polite but far from enthusiastic. In the audience was Ron Herrig of Dubuque, an undecided voter who predicted Cain's words will hurt him.

"I think he shot himself in the foot ... I'm not sure, but if that's how he feels, that's how he feels," he says, "and caucus-goers are going to have to make a decision about who they're going to support."

Gingrich received the most enthusiastic reception at the banquet. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, never a favorite of evangelicals, did not attend. The evening also included some words of caution from national Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus.

"There is no such thing as a perfect candidate. There's only one perfect person that walked the face of this Earth," he said. "We have so much to fight for in this election."

He promised that the party will be united behind the candidate it chooses to take on President Obama.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.