Two politically active pastors in Iowa's robust evangelical conservative movement said Wednesday that an effort has been under way to persuade either Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann to consider quitting the Republican presidential race and endorsing the other to avoid splintering this influential voting bloc's influence in the state's caucuses.
"Otherwise, like-minded people will be divided and water down their impact," said Rev. Cary Gordon, a Sioux City minister. He said he asked Santorum several weeks ago to consider exiting the race but has since endorsed the former Pennsylvania senator, who is rising in polls.
Rev. Albert Calloway, a retired pastor from Indianola, said he asked Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, several days ago to consider quitting the race.
A group of voters that united behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's winning caucus campaign in 2008 fear that this year's caucuses could be won by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Neither track as closely to the religious right as Santorum, Bachmann or Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Santorum, long dismissed and short on campaign money, has diligently campaigned in Iowa for more than two years. A CNN poll of Iowa caucus-goers released Wednesday showed Santorum leaping into third place in Iowa, at 16 percentage points, behind Romney and Paul.
In recent weeks, Santorum has picked up the endorsements of key social conservatives, including former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, who led the successful effort last year to oust three Iowa Supreme Court judges who were part of the court's unanimous 2009 decision to allow gay marriage.
Bachmann too has rallied Iowa's influential conservative clergy. Many, like Jeff Mullen, pastor of one of the Des Moines area's mega churches, helped lead Bachmann's winning campaign for Iowa's Republican presidential straw poll last August. But since then, Bachmann has faded in polls, although Wednesday she planned to conclude an ambitious effort to campaign in all of Iowa's 99 counties.
The CNN poll showed Bachmann with support of 9 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers, up slightly from the last poll. Perry had 11 percent, also up slightly.
Bachmann told reporters on her campaign bus between stops in Iowa on Wednesday she wasn't quitting and planned to announce additional clergy who were supporting her candidacy.
"The pastors who have endorsed my campaign want to see me as the next president of the United States," Bachmann said.
Gordon, who helped lead the campaign against the judges, said the fear of a divided social conservative vote is widespread among the state's evangelical clergy. However, few have actually reached out to candidates, he said.
Brad Cranston, a pastor from Burlington, said he too is worried that social conservatives will split their vote and lose influence over the eventual GOP nominee, but he has not yet tried to contact any candidates.
"It's more and more obvious it needs to happen for either Bachmann or Santorum to move forward," said Cranston, who has endorsed Bachmann.
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst in Indianola, Iowa, contributed to this report.