INDIANOLA, Iowa - Evangelical Christians in Iowa who once espoused the “anyone but Mitt’’ sentiment appear resigned to the possibility of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, eking out a win in the first-in-the-nation caucuses here tomorrow.
Despite a surge in the polls in recent days for Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, voters who identify with the religious right say they now see Romney as the nearly inevitable nominee. Some say they may even vote for him.
Many others are undecided and say they intend to pray for guidance.
The division of religious conservatives among several conservative candidates has boosted Romney’s chances, even though many Christians consider his record too moderate on key issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Santorum, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, attended church services here New Year’s morning, their presence duly noted by the faithful. But with just one day until the presidential nominating contest, it is too late for evangelical Christians - who made up 60 percent of Iowa caucus goers in 2008 - to rally around one conservative candidate, religious leaders here lamented over the weekend.
“Unfortunately it has me a little frustrated,’’ said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “Most of these candidates are pretty similar on a range of issues. There’s nothing like the Huckabee thing four years ago.’’ Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist minister, claimed a first place Iowa finish over Romney four years ago.
The latest Des Moines Register poll, released Saturday, shows Santorum coming out on top among evangelicals, with 25 percent of likely caucus-goers who identify as born-again Christians supporting him. Romney places second, at 20 percent. And Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, is third, at 16 percent.
Bachmann, Perry, and Gingrich, a favorite just a few weeks ago before a barrage of negative television ads took its toll, muddle together at the bottom, barely breaking into the double digits, said J. Ann Selzer, who conducts polling for the Register.
Among all likely voters, Romney leads with 24 percent, followed by Paul at 22 percent and Santorum at 15 percent. In 2008, Romney finished one point higher, at 25 percent, but trailed Huckabee.
Bachmann’s slippage has prompted some religious leaders in recent weeks to call for bottom-tier candidates to fold their campaigns and throw their support behind another Christian conservative with a better shot at winning, such as Santorum.
Scheffler, who predicts that the evangelical vote will be split among Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann, perhaps even Gingrich and Paul, said it was a mistake for pastors to ask any candidate to step aside, even if not doing so boosts Romney’s chances.
“It’s quite an insult and it’s tacky, and it doesn’t make Iowa look very good when we’re the first state to have our caucuses for people to be pulling those kinds of stunts,’’ said Scheffler, who remains undecided. “Those discussions should have taken place in private nine months ago. A week or two before the caucuses to demand people get out of the race is kind of late in the game.’’
Santorum, an underdog until recently who has campaigned the longest and hardest in the state, has picked up the endorsements of key Iowa Christian leaders such as Bob Vander Plaats, of the social advocacy group The Family Leader, who was also Huckabee’s state chairman in 2008. All the candidates scoffed at the notion of quitting.
Perry, hoping to woo the influential bloc of Christian evangelicals, attacked Santorum over the weekend as a big-spending Washington insider and touted the defunding of Planned Parenthood in Texas and his signing of a Defense of Marriage Act that enshrined marriage in Texas as the union of one man and one woman.
John Desaulniers Jr., marketing coordinator for the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, which has surveyed the GOP candidates on their positions, said Bachmann, Santorum, and Paul have resonated most with the 8,000-plus home-schooling families on the group’s mailing list, with Perry and Gingrich considered second-tier candidates and Romney barely registering.
“There are so many candidates with strong Christian values this time around who have not been ashamed to make that an integral part of their campaign,’’ Desaulniers said. “But there’s not one that is a standout, and that makes it more of a challenge for that voting bloc to pick one.’’
At the Indianola Public Library this weekend, Rod Wisecup, a 54-year-old telephone technician, drove an hour with his wife from their Earlham home to meet Santorum for the first time. “I’d like to see him face to face, look him in the eye to see how honest he is,’’ he said. Husband and wife, who identify themselves as evangelical Christians, are undecided; 41 percent of likely caucus goers polled by the Register have a first choice but could be persuaded to change their minds.
Wisecup, who supported Huckabee in 2008, has narrowed his choices down to Gingrich and Santorum, whose name has been mentioned more frequently in recent days among undecided voters’ short list of favorites. He called Gingrich a good communicator who would be a formidable candidate to debate President Obama and who has deep experience in government and historical knowledge. “But he’s got a lot of baggage and the negative ads have really hurt him,’’ Wisecup said.
So he is also considering Santorum, whose Christian values he appreciates but whom he knows little else about.
He likes most other candidates but Paul’s foreign policy views are “off the wall,’’ Perry has trouble communicating, and Bachmann lacks experience, he said.
“I’d like to throw them all in a bag, mix them up, pick out all the good things and come up with one candidate,’’ Wisecup said.
His wife, Sherri, a 53-year-old office worker who will be attending her first caucus along with their 18-year-old daughter, said that for her, it’s a toss-up between Santorum (“good wholesome Christian values’’) and Romney.
She said she has more confidence in Romney turning the country around, given his business background.
Colleen Carson, an 81-year-old painter who once supported Bachmann and whose husband supports Romney, said she is swinging toward Santorum.
“About four or five days ago I thought I better take a closer look at this young man because I haven’t paid much attention to him, frankly,’’ Carson said. “He’s very much a Christian, and I’m getting more and more impressed with him.’’
Rick Halvorsen, Warren County chairman of the Republican Central Committee, said he had been considering Perry, Bachmann, Gingrich, and Santorum, but decided two weeks ago to endorse Santorum when the candidate attended a spaghetti dinner fund-raiser for the party.
“I just think Rick Santorum is the most genuine Christian conservative of the bunch,’’ Halvorsen said. “He lives it. He breathes it.’’
And in Iowa, where roadside billboards declare “Christ died for our sins’’ and “Prepare to meet thy God,’’ that faith is not to be underestimated.
“There could be a last-minute push towards Santorum but I don’t see him getting 34 percent of the vote like Huckabee did,’’ Scheffler said. “But anything’s possible. It’s been a pretty unpredictable year.’’Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.