By John Whitesides
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (Reuters) - Frozen by indecision, Iowa's politically powerful religious conservatives are still on the sidelines in the Republican presidential race less than a month before the state's kick-off nominating contest.
After helping to propel Mike Huckabee to victory over Mitt Romney in the state in 2008, many of Iowa's evangelicals are struggling this time to choose among the handful of Republican candidates vying for their support.
"We're like little kids at an ice cream stand and we can't decide what flavor we want," said Cary Gordon of Sioux City's Cornerstone Church, one of Iowa's few prominent evangelical pastors to make a choice ahead of the January 3 contest. He recently endorsed former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum.
Six of every 10 Iowans who participated in the 2008 Republican contest said they were born-again or evangelical Christians, making them potential kingmakers if they settle on one candidate.
But efforts to maximize their clout by rallying around a single contender have failed, and many religious conservatives are still conflicted about their array of choices, all of whom have potential weaknesses.
"There are several candidates that we agree with on certain issues, but no candidate that makes us jump up and say 'Yes, that's the one,'" said Kerry Jech, the pastor at the New Hope Christian Church in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Representatives Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, and Santorum have courted the state's evangelicals and social conservatives with private meetings and church visits.
Gingrich, who leads in Iowa and in national polls, faces questions from some evangelicals about his three marriages. The others face doubts about their ability to beat President Barack Obama in 2012.
"They want to choose the right person, and there is a little bit of a fear factor that they might make a mistake," Bob Vander Plaats, head of the evangelical Family Leader group, said of indecision among religious conservatives.
"People are looking for someone good on the issues who can go against Obama, but also go against Romney," he said.
Opposition to Romney is the one thing that unites Iowa's evangelicals, who question his backing of abortion rights and an individual healthcare mandate while he was governor of liberal Massachusetts.
The lack of enthusiasm for the anti-Romney candidates could dampen turnout for religious conservatives, however, opening the door for Romney to pull out a win over a fragmented field or allowing Gingrich to continue his recent surge.
It could also dilute the influence and message of religious conservatives in a year when the economy and unemployment are likely to drive the campaign debate more than moral and social issues.
Two prominent social and religious conservative groups in Iowa decided to skip making an endorsement this year in part because of the uncertainty over which candidate to back.
"I have a lot of good friends who are all over the place now. They just can't decide," said Steve Scheffler, the influential head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, one of the two groups that will not endorse.
The Family Leader group is still pondering whether to endorse Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich or Perry.
"Strangely, given that it's less than a month away, it may be too early to make a commitment," Vander Plaats said. "I really believe this election is going to break late and it's going to break fast."
He received a letter last month from a group urging him not to endorse Gingrich, who is in his third marriage, because of his admitted infidelities during his first two marriages.
Those concerns also led Gordon, the Sioux City pastor who is backing Santorum, to text a satirical music video to Iowa Republican voters that raises questions about Gingrich's marital issues.
Nevertheless, some conservatives and religious leaders in Iowa say Gingrich's marital troubles should not bar him from consideration.
"I believe that everyone deserves a second chance. I can't judge. I'm a Christian," said Kim Schnitker, 47, of Council Bluffs, who homeschools her six kids and will back Santorum.
Jech said when he and more than a dozen Christian pastors from Iowa met with Gingrich late last year to discuss his potential candidacy, Gingrich asked if his marital troubles would disqualify him.
"I think nearly every one of us said 'If you are truly sorry, people can be forgiving,'" Jech said. "We have to be willing to forgive others."
Bachmann, who has attended church in Iowa on campaign trips, and Santorum, who made a Des Moines church one of his first campaign stops, both speak directly about their religion in campaign speeches.
The presidential hopefuls will debate each other on Saturday night in Iowa, and again next Thursday.
'A LACK OF VALUES'
"Rights come to us from God, and with these rights come responsibilities," Santorum told a Council Bluffs crowd recently, ascribing some of the problems in society to "a lack of values and morals."
Perry, who attends an evangelical megachurch in Texas, has launched two new television ads in Iowa appealing to social and religious conservatives as part of a $1.2 million ad blitz in the final stretch of the Iowa campaign.
Speaking directly to the camera in both, he said he was not afraid to talk about his values and he vows to end "Obama's war on religion."
He also said there is "something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."
Organizers of "The Response," the prayer gathering Perry hosted for 30,000 people in Houston in August a week before he declared his candidacy, held a similar but much smaller rally recently under the same name in a Christian church in Cedar Rapids.
About 200 Iowans attended the event on a cold night, joining one of the ministers who helped preside at the Houston event in a prayer for the nation.
"The church is looking for the perfect candidate, and that doesn't exist," the presiding pastor, Luis Cataldo of the Forerunner Christian Fellowship in Kansas City, Missouri, said before the session.
"There hasn't been a clear trumpet sounding for any of the candidates," he said.
Pollster Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register's Iowa poll, said fiscal issues like reducing government spending and creating jobs reflected the mood of Iowa caucus-goers this year more than social issues.
"This is a different year. This is a different mood. This is a different agenda," she said.
While there is still time to coalesce around a single candidate, many conservative leaders in Iowa were not optimistic about the chances. "I think something almost supernatural is going to have to happen for a true coalescing around any one candidate," Vander Plaats said.
(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Alistair Bell and Todd Eastham)