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Originally published March 1, 2012 at 9:35 PM | Page modified March 2, 2012 at 9:10 AM

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State GOP caucuses: Evangelical voters appear to be up for grabs

Unlike some previous years, religious conservatives in Washington have not rallied behind a single candidate in the current GOP presidential race.

Seattle Times political reporter

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In 1988, Christian conservatives lifted televangelist Pat Robertson to a win in Washington's Republican caucuses. Four years ago, many local evangelicals backed Mike Huckabee's losing primary bid.

But this year, there is no consensus favorite among social conservatives heading into Saturday's Republican caucuses.

Interviews with evangelical leaders, anti-abortion activists, gay-marriage opponents and other religious conservatives found them split among all four remaining Republican presidential contenders.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum could have an advantage: He made a strong pitch to conservatives while stumping in the state last month on the day Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a gay-marriage bill into law. But Santorum's popularity has slid nationally since then.

"I don't think the evangelical community has found one candidate that really unifies them," said state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur. While Santorum has been popular with many, Wilbur said his campaign "doesn't have the organization to focus and energize them. I expect a lot to show up Saturday, but they'll show up on their own."

Dan Kennedy, chief executive of Human Life of Washington, said that while he has personally endorsed Santorum, his anti-abortion-movement colleagues are "all over the map — I have talked to close friends who are supporting all four of them."

Valerie and Roy Hartwell, Olympia-area pastors, met with Santorum when he spoke with a group of gay-marriage foes at a church near the state Capitol. "That didn't seal it for us; we were sold months back," said Valerie Hartwell, citing Santorum's "moral values" and "straight shooter" attitude.

The Rev. Joe Fuiten of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church, a longtime leader among politically active evangelicals, signed on as co-chairman for Newt Gingrich's state campaign. He recently urged followers of his email list to caucus for Gingrich because of his "proven leadership," adding that "his life illustrates the redemption we preach."

But Fuiten acknowledged evangelicals are divided, and said he's been a bit more cautious in his own advocacy than in some past years. For example, Fuiten said he declined a request by Gingrich's campaign to have the former House speaker visit his church.

Patricia O'Halloran, a Tacoma doctor and Catholic who opposes abortion and physician-assisted suicide, said she likes Santorum and Ron Paul but plans to caucus for Paul, a Texas congressman, on Saturday.

The fact that Santorum shares her Catholic faith doesn't matter so much, O'Halloran said.

"What somebody says their religion is means nothing to me," she said. "I'll support the person that is not for big government telling us every single thing we've got to do."

Even front-runner Mitt Romney, criticized by rivals over his moderate abortion stance as Massachusetts governor, has his supporters among anti-abortion activists here.

Gerri Duzenack, who runs Human Life of Washington's political-action committee, said she likes Santorum, too, but will back Romney this weekend.

"I am going to go with the candidate who can beat Barack Obama," said Duzenack. "I feel comfortable with the fact that he [Romney] says he has changed, he has come around on the pro-life issue."

Romney also could get a boost from followers of his own Mormon faith, who were cited as key in his Nevada caucus win last month. Washington has a smaller percentage of Mormons — just 2 percent of the adult population, according to the Pew Center. But even a small boost to caucus turnout could seal a victory in caucuses that GOP officials expect to draw at most 60,000 people statewide.

It's difficult to gauge the extent to which Romney will benefit from Mormon turnout, as the church leaders do not tend to publicly showcase their political efforts in the same way as evangelicals.

Toby Nixon, a former state representative and Mormon who has been helping organize for Romney, said the former governor's business background and economic policies were more vital to him than Romney's religion.

"That's a little piece of the connection, but I am not one who is going to support a candidate just because of identity politics," Nixon said.

David Domke, professor and chairman of the University of Washington Department of Communication, has been leading a group of students and faculty across the country to cover the Republican race. He said Romney continues to benefit from both heavy Mormon turnout and the split in the evangelical community.

"If evangelicals were to unite behind Newt Gingrich or Santorum, either one of them would give him a run for the money if things fell right," said Domke, who has written a book on the rise of religion in American politics.

But that has not happened.

Here is where the local social conservatives do agree: They'll have little problem backing the eventual GOP nominee over President Obama in November.

"It's very difficult right now to say who is going to come out on top," said the Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage. "Whoever it is, we're all going to be behind."

Kennedy agreed: "We have a common enemy."

News researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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