Live

Watch CBSN Live

Rick Santorum wins support of influential Iowa evangelical

Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gestures during a Republican presidential debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) Mike Carlson

Updated 1:13 p.m. Eastern Time

Influential Iowa conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats Tuesday endorsed fellow social conservative Rick Santorum for president, saying, "I believe Rick Santorum comes from us, not to us."

"He is one of us," added Vander Plaats.

Vander Plaats made the announcement immediately after the Christian conservative organization group he heads, The Family Leader, said it would be staying neutral in the race. Fellow activist Chuck Hurley joined Vander Plaats is offering his personal backing of Santorum immediately after the announcement.

Vander Plaats has been signaling support for Newt Gingrich, who gave financial support to the group during its 2010 effort to oust judges in Iowa who voted in favor of same-sex marriage. He has suggested he sees Gingrich as having the best chance to defeat Mitt Romney in the race to become the GOP presidential nominee.

But Gingrich has been married three times and admitted infidelity, and many members of the socially-conservative Family Leader, whose membership includes many Iowa pastors and social conservatives, were deeply uncomfortable with supporting him.

"Bob wants to go with Gingrich," one source told Reuters before the decision was announced. "Too many supporters around him think that's utter madness. So they may go their separate ways."

The Family Leader's seven-person board met Friday and Monday to discuss an endorsement, having narrowed the candidates down to Santorum, Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. The group's November 22 forum attracted most of the major GOP presidential candidates.

Santorum, a strong social conservative, has been lobbying hard for the endorsement in the hopes it could help him coalesce the support of Iowa evangelicals, whose backing propelled Mike Huckabee to a victory in the caucuses in 2008. Vander Plaats's endorsement - even without the imprimatur of the group he leads - could give Santorum an advantage over Bachmann and Perry in the fight to become the consensus choice of Iowa social conservatives.

"I am truly honored to receive the Bob and Chuck's endorsement today," Santorum said in response to the endorsements. "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 tothrow out activist judges who redefined marriage in the Hawkeye State. Their reach and influence covers all corners of Iowa, and I know they did not take this endorsement lightly. This means so much more to our campaign. If their work on behalf of Governor Huckabee four years ago is any indication, I have no doubt they will be a terrific catalyst for our campaign as we continue building momentum in Iowa. Now is the time for conservatives to unite so we can defeat Barack Obama."

In a press release, the Family Leader said it sees its role as "a standard bearer versus a kingmaker." The group said it elected to allow personal endorsements despite remaining neutral because "there are thousands of undecided pro-family Iowa caucus goers looking for leadership in this selection process."

In a Public Policy Polling poll this week, Santorum got the support of 10 percent of Iowans, tying him with Bachmann and Perry. (Paul led with 23 percent, followed by Mitt Romney at 20 percent and Gingrich at 14 percent.) He was viewed favorably by 52 percent and unfavorably by 32 percent, giving him the highest net favorability rating in the field. (It should be noted that unlike CBS News, PPP conducts its surveys through automated telephone interviews.)

The fist-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are set for January 3, two weeks from today.

Full CBS News coverage: Rick Santorum
View CBS News In