Battleground Iowa: Evangelical, Catholic voters may swing state

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Story highlights

  • A battleground state, Iowa with its six electoral votes may be key in the presidential election
  • One in three Iowans call themselves Catholics or evangelicals
  • Mitt Romney has had challenges in Iowa because of his history on social issues
  • President Barack Obama, who won Iowa in 2008, may have a tough time doing it again

From church pews to cheeseburger joints, Iowa's faithful are a major prize in the political ground war raging between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Of the roughly 3 million Iowans, about 30% call themselves evangelical or Catholic. Fifty-seven percent of Iowans who voted in the caucuses this year were evangelical Christians.

Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Rick Santorum over Romney in the Iowa caucuses, helping Santorum squeeze out a slight victory in the final count.

In Des Moines, evangelical Christians flock to Grace Church, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, to talk faith, family and the presidential election. The evangelical voters we met strongly supported Romney, but they also expressed a general unease about his moderate history on social issues such as abortion.

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"His (Romney's) past positions in terms of abortion or in terms of his record in Massachusetts -- it's not been an easy choice to make either way," Mwasi Mwamba said. Mwamba said he has no party affiliation and voted early.

His wife, Dawn, plans to vote for Romney but said her religious beliefs don't align with either candidate. "I have to look at it, though I hate saying it this way, as the lesser of two evils if you will."

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    Sheri Hess described herself as having a "biblical worldview." Hess plans to vote for Romney this year but admitted his record on social issues concerns her. "He's definitely not a Christian in my view," she said when asked if Romney's Mormon faith plays into her vote. But she said she thinks he supports the Christian beliefs she holds dear.

    One evangelical voter not supporting Romney is Mike Pike. He won't vote for either candidate -- he's not casting a ballot in a presidential election for the first time in his life. Pike said the two non-negotiable issues for him are abortion and the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

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    Obama and Romney, he said, have "failed on both of those." "What a person says and what they do, when they're two different things, I have to go by what they've done so therefore I can't support either candidate in this election."

    In December, ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the Romney campaign "has a very deliberate plan to snub social conservatives."

    But this week in Des Moines, he had changed his tune, saying Romney has "proved that he has tried to make that outreach to social conservatives and economic conservatives and he's done a good job in Iowa."

    For Catholic voters, it's the first time they've had a choice between two tickets -- each with a Catholic on it.

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    In traditionally democratic Dubuque, some Catholic voters are split over issues such as abortion, funding for contraception and same-sex marriage. They disagree on how best to help the poor -- through government-run social programs or private charity.

    "(There are) the life issues which most Catholics hold dear and central to their faith, but then there's this belief that remains that the Democratic Party somehow cares for the poor better. I think it somehow comes down to that tension," said Dawn Luekin, a Catholic voter and member of St. Joseph the Worker parish in Dubuque. She's a fervid opponent of abortion, as is her mother, Ellen Markham, who said the top issues for her in this election are "life and sanctity of marriage." Both support Romney.

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    At the Village Inn restaurant in Dubuque, Jenni, a Catholic voter and Obama supporter who didn't want to share her last name, said she was concerned about backlash from co-workers. She cast an early vote for Obama this year. She's pro-abortion rights and calls it one of the top issues for her in this election but maintains her religion does not affect her vote.

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    Sue, a practicing Catholic who also declined to give her last name, was eating a cheeseburger when we chatted with her at the Village Inn. She said it is hard to reconcile abortion with her religious beliefs but said she is supporting Obama. "I can't bring myself to just vote on that one issue."

    But for Caroline Koppes, who is Catholic and an Obama campaign volunteer in Dubuque, it's clear-cut. "I just think we have got to get out of the bedrooms, and if we're against big government and we are knocking on the doors of every bedroom that is ridiculous."

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    Then there are the coveted undecided voters, such as retiree Lois Nilles. She's fed up with the partisan bickering in Washington. She said she thinks Obama has done a "fairly good job" considering tough opposition from Republicans in Congress, but as a practicing Catholic she is bothered by his abortion-rights stance.

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    Complicating the president's relationship with Catholics in an election year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been vocal in its opposition of the Obama administration's rule requiring health insurers to provide free contraceptive coverage. Catholic teaching opposes contraception and considers some methods of contraception to be tantamount to abortion.

    Nationwide, Obama won 54% of the Catholic vote in 2008 and 26% of the evangelical vote, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

    Those religious votes are key in Iowa -- a battleground state with six electoral votes -- or as folks here call it, a "purple state."

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