DES MOINES – Steve King would be warmly welcomed onto any of the campaign buses crisscrossing Iowa in the homestretch before Tuesday’s caucuses, but he spent Thursday at his home in the state’s conservative northwest.
The influential congressman’s position on the sidelines epitomizes the failure of Iowa’s abundant social conservatives to unite behind one candidate who could overtake Mitt Romney, widely distrusted because of his Mormonism and previous support for abortion and gay rights. King expected to settle on a candidate in September or October. He didn’t.
"I’ve got to have my head and my heart come together so I can jump in with both feet,’’ King said in a telephone interview from his home in Kiron, about 140 miles northwest of the state capital. "It’s got to be a conviction."
It’s not clear that an endorsement from King would seal the deal in Iowa. His favored candidate, Fred Thompson, came in third place in the caucuses four years ago. But the way candidates have clamored to go pheasant hunting with King this year suggests they think Thompson would have done a lot worse without him.
"He's the one person who could move the numbers a little bit,'' said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, who is also neutral in the race. "If there was a clear alternative to Romney and I thought an endorsement would do some good, I would do it too.''
King is slated to meet with Rick Perry when he addresses a Republican group in Mason City on Friday, and he plans to spend the rest of his time before Tuesday’s caucuses in Des Moines. "I don’t know," he said, when asked if he will offer a last-minute endorsement.
Efforts by evangelical leaders to persuade Perry, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum to endorse one another and consolidate their followings have petered out, King noted. "To accomplish a merger is going to be a very difficult maneuver at this point, and I expect the social conservative vote will be split," he said.
Won’t that open the door to Romney winning Iowa and coasting toward the nomination? "Nothing is certain in politics, but that’s what I expect could happen," said King, who is perhaps best known for a hard-line position against illegal immigration that Romney has mostly adopted.
A new CNN/Time/ORC poll that shows Romney leading in Iowa lays bare how he benefits from a splintered social conservative vote. Among caucus-goers who describe themselves as born-again Christians, 22 percent favor Santorum, with 18 percent for Ron Paul, 16 percent for Romney, 14 percent for Gingrich, 13 percent for Perry, and 12 percent for Bachmann.
Erick Erickson, the popular conservative blogger for RedState, mocked Santorum’s rise to third place in the poll, noting the former Pennsylvania senator's threadbare campaign outside of Iowa. That’s was Mike Huckabee’s problem after Iowa’s social conservatives put him over the top in the 2008 caucuses. "No Surprise, Iowa Social Conservatives Are About to Shoot Us All in the Foot Again," read the headline on Erickson’s post about the new poll. A Santorum surge, Erickson wrote, means Romney is likely to win the nomination.
That prospect doesn’t bother King, who pointed to Romney’s "exemplary family life" with his wife of 42 years and five sons. "He has more children and fewer vices than I have, so how can I criticize him?" King said, in what could be viewed as an appeal to social conservatives to come to terms with Romney’s likely success. "I could do business with Mitt Romney. I could do business with any of these candidates."
Actually, there is one candidate whose foreign policy position troubles King far more than Romney’s waffling on abortion. Ron Paul advocates pulling all American troops out of foreign countries as part of a massive military disengagement. "That would be a calamity," King said. He also worries that a Paul victory in the Iowa caucuses would diminish the state's status because the quirky libertarian is so unlikely to win the nomination.
The indecision plaguing conservative Christian voters was highlighted recently when the statewide Family Leader group announced it would stay neutral in the race, though its leader Bob Vander Plaats personally backed Santorum. About a half-dozen supporters of Herman Cain in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska, including Pottawattamie Republican Party Chairman Jeff Jorgensen, tried to agree on another candidate after Cain dropped out, but couldn’t. In a further sign of confusion, Jorgensen announced on Thursday that he is supporting Gingrich but added, "I am hoping both Bachmann and Santorum do well this coming Tuesday."
One thing that’s clear is that Romney will have to do some fence-mending with Iowa social conservatives should he win the nomination. He’s passed up several opportunities to participate in candidate forums hosted by the groups headed by Vander Plaats and Scheffler. Two out of three caucus-goers in 2008 described themselves as evangelical. "It's in his court to get those people on board in the fall after he’s repeatedly poked his finger in their eye," Scheffler said.