URBANDALE, Iowa - Four years ago, evangelical voter Nevi Roe marked her Iowa caucus ballot with no hesitation. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher, was really the only choice, she said.
This time, Roe, 80, is conflicted. Several Republican presidential candidates profess her deep Christian faith, but which one of them can win?
"The thing that concerns me is we have to have somebody who can get this president out, and I don't know who that is," Roe, of Waukee, said Wednesday. "I'm praying a lot. I feel God's going to lead me to the right path. I want God's will to be done. I don't take it lightly."
She was attending a breakfast event with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is locked with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in a fierce competition for the state's powerful bloc of evangelical voters, who made up 60 percent of GOP caucus attendees in 2008. Christian conservative leaders fret that the fractured vote will hand an Iowa victory to the moderate Mitt Romney.
"To a lot of people, these candidates are so similar on the issues, it's hard to distinguish," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition and a member of the Republican National Committee. "I haven't totally decided myself.. . .It's baffling."
In a sign of the indecision, the state's most influential group of social conservatives, the Family Leader, could not reach a consensus on whom to endorse and decided to stay neutral - though two of the organization's leaders endorsed Santorum last week.
For weeks, there had been rumors of heated arguments at board meetings of the Family Leader; some even said that the group's president, Bob Vander Plaats, was flirting with backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was surging in the polls but whose three marriages, history of infidelity, and some moderate positions were anathema to rank-and-file religious conservatives.
In the end, Vander Plaats forcefully endorsed Santorum, arguing that his record in the Senate, including authorship of a welfare overhaul and a federal ban on late-term abortions, made Santorum the most effective champion of the cause. He urged activists to unite or risk "fracturing" their power.
Controversy followed, when it came to light that Vander Plaats had asked Bachmann to step aside - he denied it - and had asked Santorum for help fundraising to promote the endorsement. That is a common practice in politics, but Bachmann and Perry supporters cried foul.
"I'm not for sale and I wouldn't sell out for 30 pieces of silver," Bachmann said Wednesday, using the biblical story of Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Jesus to refer to Vander Plaats.
Evangelicals are a smaller share of the New Hampshire Republican electorate, with 23 percent of voters in the 2008 primary identifying themselves in exit polls as born-again Christians. New Hampshire votes Jan. 10, one week after Iowa. South Carolina is next, on Jan. 21 - and 60 percent of its GOP electorate identified as evangelical in 2008.
Neither Bachmann nor Perry has backed off efforts to woo evangelicals, talking about their faith and highlighting their conservative credentials on abortion, gay rights, support for Israel, and other issues.
"Why should you settle for anything less than an authentic conservative who's going to fight for your views and values without apology?" Perry said Wednesday at a breakfast of the Westside Conservative Club at the Machine Shed restaurant, the home of cinnamon rolls the size of Ford F-150 pickup-truck hubcaps.
A new CNN/Time poll released Wednesday of 452 likely caucus-goers seemed to indicate that Santorum was gaining momentum after his evangelical endorsements and his intensive campaigning in Iowa, with more stops this year than any other candidate. He was in third place with 16 percent, a jump from 5 percent earlier this month in the same survey. Romney was leading with 25 percent, to 22 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian favorite. Gingrich had slid from 33 percent to 14 percent, 11 percent supported Perry, and Bachmann drew 9 percent. The poll was conducted Dec. 21-24 and 26-27 and has a sampling error of 4.5 percentage points.
Santorum, in addition to his backing from Vander Plaats, has picked up support from leading pastors in the Sioux City and Des Moines areas. Bachmann has her own preacher network, and Perry has been using his cash advantage to reach evangelicals with TV ads and direct mail. In his most talked-about spot, Perry says, "There's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school"; he also brags of being politically incorrect.
That resonates with Bob Meyers, 70, who was attending a recent Perry rally in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb.
"Well, I'm a born-again Christian. I believe we ought to have prayer in school. I believe we ought to stop abortion if we can," said Meyers, of Shelby, Iowa. "I'm also in agreement when he says, 'I don't have to be politically correct' - he took that line right out of my mouth. We've got to get this wicked man out of the White House. He's killing our country."
He said he thinks that Perry's executive experience in Texas makes him more electable than Santorum. And Bachmann? "I love her, but I think she's at a disadvantage being a lady," Meyers said.
Other faith-based voters are making calculations that it's important to stand for one's principles no matter what.
Alleen Johnson of Le Mars, in northwest Iowa, had encouraging words for the Minnesota congresswoman. "We pay no attention to those poll numbers," Johnson, 64, told Bachmann at a recent campaign stop at the town's Family Table Restaurant.
"We are listening to what you have said - we believe you," Johnson said. "We know that you can take on Obama. We are praying for you."