Eliot Caroom, Kim Farris, and Ellen Emerson White contributed to this piece for OffTheBus.
Secretary at Moline Evangelical Church in Moline, Illinois, Sandra Atherton is frustrated, though perhaps less so than her pastor, who declined to speak with OffTheBus regarding the politics of faith in the 2008 presidential campaign. Moline is located on the Illinois bank of the Mississippi River across from Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and many Iowans attend the Moline Evangelical Church.
Having belonged to the self-described "middle-class, conservative" and "predominantly Republican" church for almost 15 years, Asherton acknowledged that her church and its leaders are concerned by the fractured nature of the evangelical vote in the United States.
"I would say they are," she said, referring to the fragmentation that has scattered the once-solid Christian conservative vote.
Atherton's not alone in her frustration. Citizen journalists with The Huffington Post's OffTheBus project contacted over 30 Iowa churches among numerous denominations this week seeking to determine where their leaders and their congregations stand on the candidates. Responses varied considerably, but the interviews were underlined by considerable frustration and dissatisfaction with the current field. Nearly all of the top-tier candidates were mentioned as possibilities. Mike Huckabee's name was invoked frequently. Hillary Clinton's was invoked almost never.
"My flock tends to feel somewhat frustrated," said John Kinnaman, pastor of more than seven years at Trinity Bible Missionary Church in Milan at the Iowa-Illinois border. "We don't think we're going to get what we want anyway. We want someone with traditional, old-fashioned values, but I don't think any of them live up to all the values."
Despite that sentiment, conservative Iowan churchgoers are beginning to climb aboard Huckabee's ark, many sensing it may be the only way to ride out the Democratic tide that has swept across the country since late 2006.
"There is confusion within the church over the fractured nature of the evangelical votes," said Pastor Mike Dotson of the Assembly of God Church in Oskaloosa. "Quite a few people," he added however, "I have heard, are in favor of Mike Huckabee."
"There's definitely been talk," said Pastor Charles Cole of Gospel Open Bible Church in Jefferson. "I've heard Huckabee's name mentioned more than anyone else."
Others are less enthusiastic. Matt Mardis-LeCroy, minister for spiritual growth at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines, said that he's seen considerable discomfort with "the way Huckabee is trying to play Christian identity politics.
"It is safe to say that people are very turned off by that," Mardis-LeCroy said, adding that Obama has inspired a distinct "buzz" amongst his congregation, which shares the same denomination - United Church of Christ - as the senator from Illinois.
The ministers' observations seem to confirm recent national polling, which places Huckabee in the lead over his fellow Republicans and indicates a free-for-all amongst Democrats Clinton, Edwards and Obama. As reported earlier in the week by OffTheBus, Mitt Romney's early bet on Iowa seems to be coming up short.
"I think there are enough of them concerned about the Mormon issue that I don't think the Romney vote will be a factor at all in our congregation," said Atherton.
Church leaders are similarly apprehensive about Giuliani - whose campaign has floundered in a chaotic free-fall following a month of hard-hitting allegations of improper behavior while mayor of New York.
"Most of the people I have interacted with on a personal level have really questioned how anyone can vote for Giuliani," said Cole, "when he is willing to ... allow things that are against what the Bible stands for. What the Book is. It would put us in a tough spot, if he was the nominee for the Republican Party."
Cole, who describes himself as a "social conservative" and spoke at length about the importance of morality and social justice issues, was nevertheless unabashedly excited about the Democratic field, which he said "has the most vibrant and most exciting
"I think the Republican Party is lacking as far as clear leadership goes," he said. "Sometimes, you're put in a tough spot, and it's the lesser of two evils." Regarding the Democrats, Cole praised Obama and Edwards, but expressed concern over Obama's murky stance on the Family Marriage Act and Edwards' ties to the Kerry campaign of 2004.
Not surprisingly, family values and issues of morality topped most of the interviewed ministers' lists of political priorities for 2008, with immigration and the war in Iraq also mentioned frequently.
Of the Iraq war, "like everybody else, we'd like to see it end," said Pastor Douglas Benda of Avon Community Church. Benda, who has led the congregation in Avon, Iowa for 14 years. He said that to his knowledge, the members of his church have not been very involved in the campaign.
James Schmolt, worship and children's minister at River's Edge Christian Church in Waterloo, agrees. He describes his non-denominational, "Scripturally-based" church as "probably not very involved" in the presidential campaign thus far.
"I think the fact that it started early this year has been an annoyance to us," said Atherton, who cited the abundance of "negative" advertising and campaigning. "We're wishing we could vote and be done with it."