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Two Iowa faith leaders back Republican Santorum

Republican presidential candidate Santorum speaks during a Town Hall meeting at the Lincoln Café in Belle Plain, Iowa
Republican presidential candidate Santorum speaks during a Town Hall meeting at the Lincoln Café in Belle Plain, Iowa

By John Whitesides

URBANDALE, Iowa (Reuters) - Two prominent Iowa religious conservative leaders endorsed Republican Rick Santorum on Tuesday, bolstering his longshot presidential bid and dealing a blow to front-runner Newt Gingrich two weeks before the state's kickoff nominating contest.

Bob Vander Plaats, head of the influential Christian group Family Leader, and Iowa Family Policy Center head Chuck Hurley backed Santorum after the Family Leader's board of directors was unable to reach agreement on a broader group endorsement.

"I believe Rick Santorum comes from us," Vander Plaats said of the former Pennsylvania senator, who touts his born-again Christian faith on the campaign trail but is mired in single digits in most state polls. "He's one of us."

Vander Plaats and Hurley said they would help Santorum in whatever way they can and expressed hope a fractured Christian conservative community would rally around him in the waning days of the Iowa campaign.

The Family Leader's failure to reach a group endorsement was indicative of the difficulty Iowa's religious conservatives, a crucial voting bloc in the state, have had in reaching consensus ahead of the January 3 caucus.

It also dealt another blow to Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, who has been sinking in polls over the last week. Gingrich helped Vander Plaats on a successful 2010 drive to remove three Iowa Supreme Court judges in a fight over gay marriage.

The Family Leader had been torn between endorsing Gingrich, Santorum, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry as it searched for a faith candidate who could beat President Barack Obama in 2012.

Christian conservatives worry that splitting their vote will open the door in Iowa for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who some conservatives distrust because of his past support for abortion rights.

"The fear would be a fragmented vote," Vander Plaats said, expressing hope some of the other contenders would drop out of the race before the caucus vote and back Santorum.

In 2008, six of every 10 voters who participated in Iowa's Republican contest said they were evangelical or born-again Christians, and they helped propel Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, to a 2008 win.

'A JANUARY SURPRISE'

Turnout among Christian conservatives in Iowa is likely to be lower this year given the uncertainty about which candidate to support, but Vander Plaats said Santorum was capable of catching fire.

"I believe he is ready for a January 3 surprise," he said.

Santorum said the endorsement from Vander Plaats and Hurley would boost his White House bid in all corners of Iowa.

"I have no doubt they will be a terrific catalyst for our campaign as we continue building momentum in Iowa," Santorum said in a statement. "Now is the time for conservatives to unite so we can defeat Barack Obama."

The Family Leader's board had met last week and again on Monday in a failed effort to reach agreement on a group endorsement, but ultimately decided to let Vander Plaats and Hurley make their own personal endorsements.

"I've never seen a caucus like this," Vander Plaats told reporters. "People are going from one candidate to another in a 10-minute period."

The Family Leader group, which includes many social conservative voters and evangelical pastors in Iowa, has been prominent in the 2012 race, holding a presidential forum and promoting a marriage pledge meant to get the candidates on the record on same-sex marriage.

Santorum, Bachmann and Perry signed the group's marriage vow, which calls for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and personal fidelity to one's spouse.

Gingrich, whose two divorces have raised concerns with social conservatives, did not sign the pledge but promised to remain faithful to his third wife in a detailed letter recently sent to The Family Leader.

Santorum also has won the endorsement of evangelical pastor Cary Gordon of Sioux City, who also helped in the effort to remove the three Iowa Supreme Court justices.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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