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For Rick Santorum, First Day Of Political Reckoning Comes Sunday

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- The caucuses are Tuesday, but the first day of political reckoning in the 2012 campaign comes this Sunday.

It is a judgment day of sorts for Rick Santorum.

In theory, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has the money and Southern accent to at least make a go of things in South Carolina later in January if he finishes out of the money in the Iowa contest. But Santorum, who has less cash and less access to it, needs help on Sunday to do well enough on Tuesday to move on. If the former Pennsylvania senator doesn't finish at least a close and convincing third, he will have a hard time surviving.

Santorum has spent a good portion of the last two years here, crisscrossing the state. A distant third won't be good enough.

On Sunday, evangelical Christians will gather for worship across the state, and even if their pastors don't advise them from the pulpit whom to vote for -- doing so could, in theory, jeopardize the church's tax-exempt status -- the Republican presidential race will be on the minds, hearts and lips of congregants from Sioux City to Davenport.

Candidates will attend church, in some cases strategically, but not race from place to place in the name of divine victory.

"You have to be careful," said Hogan Gidley, national communications director for Santorum. "People don't like politicians showing up in church unless they are worshiping there."

Instead, candidates are republishing and sending out lists of pastoral endorsements, and emailing their cultural and religious bona fides to multiple political action and public interest groups associated with evangelical causes. They are also blanketing God-talk radio with ads.

Santorum has a particularly convincing list of big-name pastoral endorsers. Rep. Michele Bachmann has her share, but her gender, not to mention her sometimes unsteady campaign style, has held her back with some of the clergy.

With large groups of prayerful voters gathered in one spot -- crowds at some megachurches -- the politicking in the parking lot or the nearby post-service restaurant will be intense, especially since the competition for these voters is so ferocious this time.

Perhaps nowhere in America today is there greater friction over "cultural politics" than in Iowa, which means in no other state do evangelical pastors and their flocks play a greater role in both local and national politics. Pastoral endorsements merit press releases, and the ministers themselves have become backroom-dealing, hardball-playing operatives as steely eyed and determined as any machine politician in any metropolis back East.

This has been true in Iowa for years, as the evangelical movement gathered strength in what is still an overwhelmingly rural state. But the battle took on greater urgency and depth in 2009, when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of marriage rights for gay couples. Iowa is thus joined with Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia -- and Iowa sticks out like a tall cornstalk in that field of Yankee and metropolitan social liberalism.

The Midwest clash between Bible Belt evangelicals and gay rights advocates has already shaped the innermost machinery of the GOP race here. Santorum campaigned hard and heavily here in 2010 in the successful campaign to recall three of the state Supreme Court justices who voted for gay marriage. Newt Gingrich arranged a $200,000 anonymous donation to the group that spearheaded the judicial ouster campaign. Bachmann, Perry and others also lent support.

But in the end, it has been Santorum -- for whom opposition to gay marriage is perhaps the defining issue -- who won most of the endorsements of the pastors and activists closest to the judicial ouster campaign.

Whether these pastoral leaders might now be seen as too tainted by politics is an open question. Some have been accused of seeking or accepting money for their support; others have become public combatants in ways that make them virtually indistinguishable from the elected politicians they deride.

When it was time to attack Gingrich, for example, some candidates' camps launched massive ad campaigns; Santorum unleashed his pulpit-based allies. Albert Calaway, a retired minister from Indianola, labeled Gingrich "a very fine empty suit with a broken zipper." The Rev. Cary Gordon of Sioux City scorned the former speaker for his three marriages. "When you stand before the altar and say your marriage vows, you either mean it or you don't," Gordon said.

Santorum recently added the endorsement of the Rev. Terry Amann of the Walnut Creek Community Church in the Des Moines area. The church has more than 1,100 members, and Amann is one of its most popular pastors.

Interestingly, Santorum asked the pastor to witness to the former senator's breadth of knowledge and experience, not just his faith-based stand on issues.

"Rick Santorum is a humble person of solid character and integrity," Amann said. "He has been a powerful advocate for the unborn, and he has been a strong voice and excellent example for traditional marriage. On all points, Rick Santorum is a solid conservative, both socially and fiscally, and he has the political record to prove it. He also knows that we need to cut spending, cut taxes, and create jobs in order to stimulate the American economy. Senator Santorum is also well-versed in foreign policy. He understands the nuances and complexities of the Middle East and of the threats posed by Islamic jihad."

Who better to recommend an expert on jihad than an evangelical pastor?

No one in Iowa.

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