URBANDALE, Iowa --- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum got the endorsement Tuesday of one of the state's best-known evangelicals, but not the influential group he heads.
Bob Vander Plaats, the three-time gubernatorial candidate and CEO of the Family Leader, said Santorum earned his personal endorsement, but the organization would officially remain neutral.
Santorum also earned the personal endorsement of Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, who joined Vander Plaats at a Comfort Suites in Urbandale to make the announcement.
Vander Plaats indicated the board of the Family Leader was divided about whom to support, and there's a fear among social conservatives that their votes would be spread out among two or more candidates. He and Hurley suggested that the candidates "coalesce" behind the single "pro-family" candidate that has electability.
"I think the caucus-goers see the polls as well, whether it's 10-10-10 or 14," he said referring to polling numbers. "I think if you put those numbers together, you could have a dynamo candidate coming out of Iowa."
Santorum, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have tried to appeal to religious and social conservatives, more than other major candidates.
Last week, a group of evangelical pastors organized by former state Rep. Danny Carroll of Grinnell announced their support for Bachmann. Perry, meanwhile, has been running radio and television spots highlighting his opposition to gays in the military and what he calls President Barack Obama's "war on religion."
Dividing the board from Vander Plaats's personal endorsement might seem more a matter of semantics than anything else.
"(I'm) not sure there would have been a difference," said Jamie Johnson, a Santorum campaign aide who attended the news conference. "Here's the key: To many people in Iowa, Bob Vander Plaats is the Family Leader, and the Family Leader is Bob Vander Plaats."
Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, pointed out that if Santorum has gotten the endorsement of the organization itself, he would have likely had more access to additional funding and campaign staff that could make a significant difference in these final two weeks before the caucuses.
Johnson said the endorsement "will help consolidate conservatives around Rick Santorum, and I believe we're going to see in the next seven to 10 days, a considerable rise of Rick Santorum's standing in the Iowa polls."
Larimer agreed that there will be a bump for Santorum because of the endorsement, but he said social conservatives aren't as united as they were in 2010 when Vander Plaats helped organize voters against gay marriage in the Iowa Supreme Court retention election.
Santorum noted that effort in his "thank you" statement sent out by his campaign.
"I am truly honored to receive Bob and Chuck's endorsement today," he said. "I've had the great pleasure of getting to know them over the past several years. In fact, we campaigned together throughout 2010 as they successfully worked to throw out activist judges who redefined marriage in the Hawkeye State."
Bachmann's campaign sent out a statement in support the Family Leader's decision to stay neutral Tuesday afternoon.
The statement quoted Pastors Matt Floyd, Bill Tvedt and Brad Cranston and faith leader Tamara Scott as saying that Bachmann is "a biblically qualified, capable, no-compromise leader who is the only truly consistent conservative in the race ... (who) remains completely deserving of the Family Leader's full endorsement."
The statement seemed to indicate that none of the candidates were quite ready to coalesce by Jan. 3.
"I don't expect any candidate who runs for president and puts in the shoe leather and the effort that all of the Republican candidates have put in, to drop out of the Iowa caucuses," Johnson said. "I don't think Sen. Santorum to expect that, nor would he ask."