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Republicans are vying for support from Christian conservatives

Tony Perkins: 'It is going to be very competitive'

Washington CNN —  

The first votes of the 2016 campaign won’t be cast for another year but there’s already a race well underway: The Christian primary.

Republicans are actively courting white evangelical and born again Christian voters, knowing they will be crucial in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will meet with religious leaders Tuesday at two separate events in Iowa to promote the Response, a day of fasting, repentance and prayer focused on the future of the United States, a person close to Jindal tells CNN. While the Louisiana governor will encourage the Iowa religious leaders to attend the Jan. 24 Baton Rogue event, these influential social conservatives are also expected to question Jindal about his interest in seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

On the same day, another gathering will take place in Des Moines, where at least seven potential GOP presidential candidates, including Mike Huckabee, will address Iowa voters on “core principles” that include “social conservatism,” at a forum co-hosted by Citizens United and Iowa Rep. Steve King. Huckabee’s announcement this weekend to end his Fox News Channel television program to explore a presidential bid will likely shake up the race and cause other potential like-minded conservative candidates to accelerate their decision making processes.

The wooing of white evangelical and born again Christian voters by potential presidential candidates has been an ongoing process that began soon after President Barack Obama won a second term in 2012. In the past six months alone, Marco Rubio spoke at South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan’s “Faith and Freedom” fundraiser; Jindal, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Huckabee addressed the Iowa Family Leader Summit; and Ben Carson was the keynote speaker at the Family Leader’s annual fundraising dinner.

“It looks like we are going to have more social conservative candidates than we did the last time,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “It is going to be very competitive.”

READ: Ben Carson: Political phenomenon

That’s great for social conservatives who are yearning for Republican presidential candidates to speak openly and forcefully about the issues they care about: abortion, religious liberty, and same sex marriage, among others. But a competitive primary could wind up hurting their cause if they aren’t able to unite behind one or two candidates.

The splintering of white evangelical and born again Christians may provide an opening for a more centrist candidate to win the Republican nomination – leaving social conservatives, once again, frustrated that a candidate of their political stripe failed to win.

“From my perspective, it would be a whole lot wiser for us to coalesce behind one candidate than divide up,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader. “But that is easier said than done. I think you let the process play out and if there is an opening, then coalesce. I think you try to do it, but I am not confident.”

This lack of certainty has some leaders in the social conservative movement already engaged in discussions about how to avoid diluting their power, especially in Iowa and South Carolina.

For these leaders, the hope is to prevent a repeat of 2012 when Mitt Romney – considered the more centrist, establishment candidate – won the nomination in a crowded field of self-described social conservatives. Romney was initially declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses by a mere eight votes over Santorum, who made social conservatism a major part of his campaign.

Several weeks later, after all the caucus votes were certified, it was announced that Santorum, not Romney, had actually won Iowa. But it was too late. Romney had the wind at his back and eventually went on to win the nomination.

A review of the 2012 Iowa caucus entrance poll shows that Santorum won the white evangelical and born Christian vote with 32%, while the remaining support split among five of his rivals: Ron Paul, 19%; Newt Gingrich, 14%; Perry, 14%; and Michele Bachmann, 5%.

WATCH: Michele Bachmann’s not so quiet exit

What if the white evangelical and born again voters had backed Santorum over one of the other five candidates?

It is not clear if a win in Iowa would have changed the ultimate outcome of Romney winning the nomination. After all, he had the money, infrastructure, and backing of the GOP establishment. But naming Romney the initial winner of the caucuses deprived Santorum the chance to fully seize on an important moment in the campaign.

“At the time, we thought it was ok,” said Hogan Gidley, a senior aide on Santorum’s presidential campaign. “We got all of the publicity and we called it a win, because we were outspent by so much. But looking back on it, we didn’t realize it at the time what comes along with a win in Iowa such as the cover Newsweek, the cover of Time, all of the major publications would have pronounced Rick Santorum as the blue collar conservative and winner of Iowa.”

Social conservative leaders also note that John McCain won the 2008 nomination under similar circumstances – a fractured social conservative base.

“What has happened in the last two presidential election cycles is that the candidates that the Christian conservatives favored split the votes up,” said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association. “When you get three or four social conservative candidates splitting up the vote, McCain and Romney are going to win.”

Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are two names that are often mentioned by social conservatives as centrist candidates who would benefit if the Christian vote splits between several candidates in this election cycle.

READ: Christie says Jeb Bush’s 2016 ambitions are not a factor

Discussions on how to rally Christian conservatives behind one candidate are quietly taking place on many levels, according to several sources familiar with the effort. The most influential group is the Council for National Policy, whose membership includes leaders representing prominent social conservative organizations. GOP candidates are invited to address the CNP in private meetings.

“My goal will be to give conservative leaders every opportunity to see the candidates, to get to know them and to do an apples to apples comparison at the right time,” said Perkins, who also serves as the CNP’s president. “If that time comes, encourage people to get behind a candidate. But I don’t think it is going to be something that happens early.”

The next CNP meeting is expected to happen in early 2015.

A major roadblock in unifying behind a singular candidate is the deep, personal relationships that social conservative activists and leaders have developed with individual candidates over the years. As one activist noted, “You bleed with them in battle. There are alliances, friendships … people who worked hard for you. You don’t want to burn them.”

But this lack of early unity in the Christian conservative ranks gives the candidates time to sell their vision of governing to this important Republican constituency. And it has already begun in small meetings in Iowa and South Carolina as well as large public meetings over the past year.

Heading into 2015, the Conservative Political Action Conference is the biggest meeting – drawing activists and leaders to the Washington suburbs in late February. In the spring, the Faith & Freedom Coalition is expected to hold its meeting in Washington, followed by the Values Voter Summit in the fall. And the Family Leader will host its leadership summit in Iowa.

READ: Evangelicals step back from gay marriage fight

Sprinkled throughout these events will be dinners, fundraisers and candidate forums in several states – all soapboxes for candidates to woo social conservatives.

Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, said at the very base level, candidates need to embrace social conservative positions on “life, marriage, religious freedom, and support for Israel.” But Nance noted that championing these policy positions is not enough for the candidates if they hope to receive support from conservative Christian voters.

“You have to have a winsome personality,” she said. “You have got to have a message that works, that people understand, that deals with the issues that are in the hearts of the voters. And you need to have muscle, infrastructure, ground game and money to win. If you don’t have one of these it will be very hard.”

Over and over again, Christian conservative activists and leaders emphasized that they are not a single issue constituency group – noting that candidates need to weave their personal position on social issues into their overall governing plan.

“Evangelical voters are concerned about other issues: the economy, immigration, foreign policy and the U.S. decline on the world stage,” said Dr. Tony Beam, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who hosts a morning drive Christian talk radio program in Greenville, South Carolina.

Huckabee’s decision to give up a lucrative television deal at Fox News Channel sends a powerful signal to religious leaders who may have questioned whether he was truly committed to running for President. For now, it would appear that Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister, would have an early edge in the Christian primary – a group of voters he has been courting since his 2008 presidential run.

“There is no doubt he excites a healthy portion of the still-substantial social conservative base and he also appeals to middle class voters, which have deserted Republicans in the past two presidential elections,” said Steve Deace, an Iowa-based nationally syndicated radio talk show host.

Huckabee knows how to speak to white evangelical and born again Christian voters, and emphasized that he was leaving Fox New Channel because he believed that “God hasn’t put me on earth just to have a good time or to make a good living, but rather has put me on earth to try to make a good life.”

This type of language is important, because a deep understanding of social conservative issues will be closely watched by leaders and activists who make up the movement.

“Whatever they say, they need to truly believe it,” said Lisa Van Riper, a longtime social conservative activist in South Carolina. “They need to have a clear action plan, not just give lip service. They need to talk about the current situation and need to be fluid in that and what specific kinds of policies they might propose. If they’ve done something on the issues, it gives them a lot more credibility than just talking about it.”

Mark DeMoss, a leading Christian public relations consultant, said that in the past ideology has trumped pragmatism when social conservatives look at presidential candidates, although he noted in recent year there has been “a little more willingness to not have perfect alignment [on issues] in exchange for trying to win.”

Still, DeMoss added, this ideological standard is unique to politics, not to everyday life.

“We don’t apply it in business, in school, hiring of a plumber, a painter or an architect,” said DeMoss, who was a senior adviser on Romney’s presidential campaign. “There is nothing else we do in life where this person has to be my stripe of Christian or I won’t work with them. I think it is a double standard litmus test.”