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Santorum enjoying late boost in Iowa

But divided loyalties might help Romney

scott olson/Getty Images

Rick Santorum, who hosted a town hall meeting yesterday in Coralville, Iowa, suggested at another gathering in Muscatine that it’s about time reporters started paying attention to him.

MUSCATINE, Iowa — Rick Santorum, riding a late tailwind that has moved him up in the polls, is suddenly a hot commodity on the campaign trail as he attempts to consolidate the crucial but fragmented constituencies of social and religious conservatives.

But there are signs that leaders of Iowa’s influential evangelical Christian community are worried that divided loyalties in that group will help a less socially conservative candidate like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or Representative Ron Paul of Texas win the caucuses on Tuesday.

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Two pastors approached Santorum and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota recently to urge one or the other to drop out and endorse the other to consolidate evangelical Christian support, the Associated Press reported. One of the pastors has since endorsed Santorum.

Bachmann has defiantly declared her intent to stay in the race, despite her 9 percent standing in a TIME/CNN poll, and the fact that an Iowa cochairman, a state senator, defected to Paul’s campaign late Wednesday. (In the poll, Romney led with 25 percent, followed by Paul at 22 percent and Santorum at 16 percent.)

Yesterday, standing before a packed room in Muscatine, Santorum noted he is no longer being largely ignored by the news media.

‘We can’t afford a president who’s just a little bit better than the one in office now.’

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“People with all this machinery, I didn’t see them back then,’’ Santorum said, gesturing to seven television cameras around the function room overlooking the Mississippi River.

The former senator from Pennsylvania laid out the range of his conservative views on social, economic, and foreign policy issues; tore into President Obama as “out there on the extreme’’ as an advocate of European-style government; and urged the first-in-the-nation caucus goers to do “what you are supposed to do — and that’s lead; lead the country and lead the Republican Party.’’

Santorum said liberal social policies have expanded government at the expense of traditional family values and set aside the principles embraced by the nation’s founding fathers.

He dismissed the polls and pundits and said that because Iowans take the time to learn about the candidates and issues, caucus-goers should “respect your own intellect and respect your own gut.’’

“We can’t afford a president who’s just a little bit better than the one in office now,’’ Santorum said.

His rise has gotten the attention of another candidate seeking the social conservative vote, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who yesterday hit Santorum for supporting budget earmarks aimed at helping Pennsylvania while in Congress.

The Muscatine crowd was a mix of solid Santorum supporters, the curious who are not planning to caucus, and the undecided, some of whom liked what they heard.

“I think I probably made my commitment today,’’ said Dennis Tripp, a civil engineer from Muscatine, who had been on the fence. “I just like his message and the fact that he is a person of faith.’’

Jim Schmidt, a historic preservationist from Muscatine, said he will probably caucus for Santorum after hearing his pitch.

“I really like his conservatism,’’ said Schmidt. “Romney would be all right’’ if he won, but his top priority is to elect someone other than Obama.

While Santorum is surging, Bachmann is scuffling after cochairman Kent Sorenson’s defection. Still, she said at a press conference yesterday that she remains optimistic about her chances of winning the caucuses despite her low ranking in the polls and the loss of Sorenson.

Bachmann, who eked out a win at the Ames Straw Poll in August with just 152 more votes than Paul and who has just finished a bus tour of all 99 Iowa counties, said that she and her team were caught by surprise by Sorenson’s decision.

Sorenson, she said, had told her in a private phone conversation on Tuesday that he had been offered “a great deal of money’’ by Paul’s campaign but reassured her that he would stick by her side. She said Sorenson apologized to her on Wednesday for having considered leaving but reaffirmed to her and her staff as late as 4 p.m. that he would stay.

“He told all of our campaign that he was definitely on board, and then he got in his car and he announced that he was going with the Ron Paul campaign,’’ Bachmann said.

She hammered Paul yesterday on his foreign policy views, his support for legalizing drugs, and his refusal to support a federal amendment to establish marriage as only between one man and one woman. She characterized the Paul campaign’s recruitment of Sorenson as a desperate act.

Sorenson has denied that money played a role in his decision to leave and told CNN that he made the switch because there is a “clear opportunity to defeat Mitt Romney’’ now that Paul is “the most conservative candidate in the top tier category’’ in Iowa.

Bachmann is also dealing with the pressure from some Christian evangelical ministers to end her campaign and throw her support behind Santorum, whose surge in the polls gives him a greater shot at winning. The split in the evangelical vote - which propelled former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to win the 2008 caucuses - threatens to pave the way for a Romney win, a fear for many social and religious conservatives who consider Romney too moderate and view his Mormon religion with skepticism.

Bachmann did not address the possibility of quitting during her stops yesterday but had previously told reporters that she had no plans to do so, saying she has already drawn the endorsements of influential evangelical pastors and would announce more in coming days. A group of pastors who support Bachmann traveled the state before Christmas stumping for her.

“The pastors who have endorsed my campaign want to see me as the next president of the United States,’’ Bachmann said.

At a downtown Des Moines town hall yesterday for employees of the Principal Financial Group, more than 300 signed up to hear Bachmann. Several voters, whether or not they support her, said they admired her fighting spirit and middle-class roots.

Like roughly half the voters in Iowa, Bonnie Simmons, a 59-year-old administrative assistant at Principal, said she remains undecided. A self-described evangelical Christian, she said she could be persuaded by several candidates, including Bachmann and Santorum, whose positions on social issues she sees as largely indistinguishable.

But following Bachmann’s stump speech — during which she railed against Obamacare, touted her support for Israel; promised to defund Planned Parenthood and strengthen the institution of the family; and emphasized the need to build a fence along the Mexican border and make English the nation’s official language — Simmons said Bachmann may have persuaded her to caucus for her.

“She represents a return of our country to Christian values,’’ Simmons said.

Lisa Wilmes, a 51-year-old quality assurance analyst from Indianola, said she’s deciding between Bachmann and Paul and does not want to see Bachmann pull out. A single mother of four, Wilmes said she’s attracted to Bachmann’s down-to-earth nature and biography, which includes being raised by a single mother and having to clip coupons.

“She needs to stand tall alone,’’ said Wilmes, adding that Santorum has barely registered on her radar. “She should go for it. She’s really got it together.’’

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at brian.mooney@globe.com. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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