Iowa dinner offers candidates a chance to unite conservatives against Romney

The best opportunity for a GOP contender to unite Iowa conservatives against Mitt Romney could come at Saturday’s Faith & Freedom Coalition dinner in Des Moines.

The event will draw at least 800 of the most dedicated social conservative activists and pastors in the state — people who hold great sway with evangelical Christians, who make up the state’s largest voting bloc.

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Evangelical voters decided the winner of the 2008 caucuses and are expected to do the same this cycle.

Romney won’t be addressing the crowd – neither will former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman – but the other Republican presidential candidates are scheduled to be there and all of them are hoping for a win in the important early-voting state.

It’s division among this crowd that has given the former governor of Massachusetts his opening in Iowa – unless one of his rivals can bring together the fractured voting bloc.

Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, said this event could be crucial.

“In Iowa right now you have social conservatives who are just now starting to decide where they’re going to line up, who they’re going to support, and anyone could get these people,” he said.

Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain may have the most on the line: He has surged in the polls but has not been to the state since the August straw poll in Ames and has little field organization set up there. Another issue: many social conservatives were concerned by his comments on abortion earlier this week.

In an interview with CNN earlier this week, Cain said abortion should be legal “under no circumstances,” but then seemed to reverse himself when asked about abortions in cases of rape and incest.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) criticized Cain’s comments and he has sought to clarify them since. He will likely have to address them in his Iowa speech — and the other candidates, looking to shore up their support and shut him out, will likely come out guns blazing on the issue.

“It’ll be [Cain’s] first visit since the straw poll and with his recent comments people are wondering where he stands,” said Robinson. “Bachmann and Santorum, who are really fighting for the conservative base, understand that those people who really like Cain are still up for grabs and may make a move.”

Romney’s decision to skip the event reflects his campaign’s attempts to downplay Iowa’s importance in their strategy despite his recent visit there and polls showing he’s on the rise in the state.

He’s been focusing on New Hampshire this time after he spent millions in Iowa last cycle only to finish a disappointing second.

But Romney’s absence has not gone unnoticed.

Steve Scheffler, a prominent social conservative who heads the group, expressed frustration that Romney was not attending the event and pointed out that he spoke at it four years ago.

“They’ve known about this event for at least four months and I doubt they got many earlier invitations,” he said. “They need to be here [in Iowa] and get engaged, and especially with the race so fluid I don’t understand why they won’t make their mark here. We’ve done everything we can to reach out to the campaign and they’ve largely ignored us.”

But if no conservative consensus comes out of Saturday’s event, there will be a limited number of opportunities ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses for the GOP contenders: a major Republican Party dinner on Nov. 4 and another large gathering of social conservatives the weekend before Thanksgiving.