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Santorum staffer's private email about gender, presidential politics sets off bitter fight

MIAMI, FL –- An email posing questions about traditional Christianity’s view of the role of women in political life is the subject of a bitter complaint today by a former member of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign. 

The email was sent last summer from the personal account of an Iowa staffer working for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. It was first reported Friday by the Des Moines Register.

The email reads, in part: "Is it Gods highest desire, that is, His biblically expressed will... to have a woman rule the institutions of the Family, the Church, and the State?"

Reached by telephone Saturday, the author of the email -- Jamie Johnson -- told NBC News his email has been "blown way out of proportion," and does not represent official campaign correspondence.  

Johnson, who is a pastor at a central Iowa church, is Santorum’s “Iowa coalitions director,” tasked with building support among the state’s evangelical community.

"I was sharing my personal reflections with a friend through my private email account -– not the campaign account," Johnson said. “They were reflections on over 25 years of formal, theological study” based in “classical Christian doctrine.”

But the email, passed this summer from its recipient to a member of the Bachmann campaign, is raising questions about attitudes inside the evangelical voting bloc over which Bachmann and Santorum competed in the run-up to the Jan. 3 caucuses.  

Santorum finished a close second in the contest; Bachmann finished in last place among those competing and dropped out of the presidential race the next day.

Peter Waldron, who lives in Florida and worked nationally Iowa as Bachmann’s “faith outreach coordinator,” says that “misogyny was a serious issue in Iowa” -- and argues that “medieval attitudes” are to blame, in part, for his candidate’s weak showing.

He is today demanding an apology from Santorum over a “sexist strategy” in the state, sending a press release only hours before Santorum won the support of a key meeting of national evangelical leaders.

Citing Johnson’s email, Waldron makes this charge: “Evangelical surrogates [for Santorum] promoted the idea that a female cannot be an elected official or a commander-in-chief.”

(Waldron, who has managed Christian outreach for Republican candidates since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 run, received a rash of press himself this summer, over his 2006 arrest in Uganda on terrorism charges.  He tells NBC News he was there on a Christian mission, and his arrest had to do with his opposition to the sitting president's effort to force a third term through the legislature.)

Native observers of political and religious life in Iowa are more measured, but acknowledge a debate over Bachmann's gender emerged in churches after her presidential fortunes slipped.

"I know of pastors who were supporting her before the [Aug. 13] straw poll, and then I saw pastors try to tell everybody when she was plummeting in the polls that we needed male leadership," says the Des Moines-based, nationally-syndicated radio host Steve Deace, who is supporting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for president.

"She was trying to get elected as a woman," Deace adds about Bachmann. "And I think in general people in both parties are more comfortable voting for men. Just ask Hillary Clinton."