Iowa conservative endorses Santorum

Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign received a significant boost Tuesday when conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats endorsed the former senator for president.

Vander Plaats, the executive of the conservative Iowa group The Family Leader, made a personal endorsement at a news conference, heaping praise on the former Pennsylvania senator’s position on abortion.

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“I saw him as a champion for the family in the U.S. House, I saw him as a champion for the family in the U.S. Senate," Vander Plaats said.

Calling Santorum “a stalwart and a soldier for the sanctity of human life,” Vander Plaats promised to “mobilize whatever resources” he had to help Santorum's campaign.

The endorsement is critical because social conservatives are the major swing bloc in Iowa to win ahead of the Iowa caucuses, which are two weeks away.

While The Family Leader announced at the news conference that it would not endorse a candidate as a group, a decision highlighting disagreement among social conservatives over who to back, Vander Plaats is the biggest name to get.

Vander Plaats led the successful fight to remove three Iowa supreme court justices after they legalized gay marriage, and ran for governor in 2010, nearly winning the GOP primary against popular former Gov. Terry Brandstad (R).

He received nearly 100,000 votes in the race, almost as many voters as usually turn out for the GOP presidential caucuses. Vander Plaats also ran former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's (R) field operation in 2008, helping him to a surprising win in the caucuses. He retains a strong field organization in the state that could be a huge boost for the former senator.

Santorum is a hard-line social conservative who has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate. He is depending on a victory in the Iowa caucuses to transform his candidacy.

Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, said the endorsement is the latest sign Santorum has momentum in the race. “Santorum is the natural fit for social conservatives,” he said. “He speaks their language. Vander Plaats is serving as a validator — ‘this guy’s with us’ — in a cycle where maybe three quarters of caucus-goers could still be swayed.”

Vander Plaats has been highly critical of Mitt Romney's campaign in the state, blasting him for skipping his events as well as other major Republican cattle-calls. But he promised not to attack other candidates in the race. 



“I will not tear down another candidate because we have other good candidates in this race,” Vander Plaats said.

There had been speculation that Vander Plaats might endorse Newt Gingrich, who until recently was flying high in Iowa's polls and had given large sums to Vander Plaats's organization while they were trying to remove the supreme court justices. The endorsement indicates social conservatives in Iowa see Gingrich as fading fast, and have reservations about his record.



The endorsement is a coup for Santorum as the group is highly influential among social conservatives, a constituency Santorum has been hoping to win over. It's the second major Iowa endorsement for the former Pennsylvania senator. He was also endorsed by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz in early December.