SIOUX CITY and ORANGE CITY, Iowa -- Devotion is key in this part of the state, its most conservative corner. And, just two days before Republican caucusgoers cast the first votes of the 2012 presidential election, devotion to Rick Santorum here seems to run deep.
“He’s a true conservative,” said Beth Goethschius, of Sioux City, one of about 150 or so people, who packed into The Daily Grind coffee shop in downtown Sioux City to hear Santorum speak.
“He is the most consistent conservative,” said Dale Nystrom, a physician from Hawarden, who was among about 200 people, who filled chairs, leaned against walls, and backed up the stairs of the basement of a bank around the corner from “Bibles for Missions” and off the town square of rural Orange City, about an hour north of Sioux City.
Nystrom and his wife Lynette signed up this week to be Santorum precinct captains.
“He’s a hard worker,” said Lynette, who said she’s been with Santorum since August and convinced her husband, who liked Rep. Michele Bachmann and then Newt Gingrich, to get on board. “I talked him out of it,” Lynette said with a smile and a laugh. Dale smirked and nodded in agreement.
At Santorum's events very few were undecided. Most had their minds made up -- and they were with the former Pennsylvania senator. If that’s any indication, then Santorum’s scuffed-up shoe leather campaigning over the past year, which has taken him to all 99 counties, has paid dividends. If he has, in fact, locked up religious conservatives, who made up 60% of GOP caucusgoers in 2008, he could be on the cusp of pulling off a meteoric upset.
Of the other candidates making a play for evangelicals, voters here in the Northwestern part of the state, said they liked Bachmann, but didn’t view her as electable or of presidential timber. And few, except one 18-year-old, first-time caucusgoer, even mentioned Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
In 2008, Mitt Romney actually won Woodbury County, where the population center Sioux City is. In an event there yesterday, Romney was well received. But in Sioux County, where Orange City is located, Mike Huckabee ran up the score winning 53% of the vote. Romney finished third (behind John McCain) with just 14%.
At both Santorum events, religion was evident. In Sioux City several Santorum lines were greeted with "Amens." In Orange City, a pastor introduced him with a prayer. He called it an "honor to pray for Rick Santorum," who is "standing for righteousness even when it's not popular. ... We commit him to you, Lord."
Mary Clark, also of Sioux City, said she made up her mind to caucus for Santorum “a couple days ago.” “He’s a conservative,” Clark said, noting that she had seen all of the candidates in person. Santorum, more than the other candidates, she said, seemed to be able to express how his experience in Washington would be helpful. She believed he could get things done.
Ryan Beardshear, 30, of Sioux City, also cited Santorum's experience. “He has a proven track record of experience,” Beardshear said. He said he had been with Bachmann, but now his “mind is made up” to go with Santorum. “He’s a better fit,” Beardshear said. “It’s not a canned speech” with Santorum.
Myrtie Demarest and husband Gaylen drove 40 miles from Cushing, Iowa, to hear Santorum speak in Sioux City. They also said they liked what they heard.
“He has conviction,” Myrtie said. “He’s not ashamed.”
But they also like Bachmann and don’t have their minds fully made up.
“They’re real close,” Gaylen said. Asked what would make up his mind, looking down, he paused, then said, “We’re going to pray about it.”
For Rick Fetterman, there’s no question.
“I’m fully decided,” said Fetterman, 50, who works at a nearby Holiday Inn, but said he is finishing up studies to be an evangelical minister at Sioux Land Christian College. “I believe 100 percent in Rick Santorum.”
Fetterman said he, too, liked Bachmann, but the endorsement of a local pastor made up his mind. Plus, Bachmann’s slide in the polls, he said, made this clear to him: “I don’t think the people of America are ready to put a woman in office.”
Several voters said they made up their minds in the last few days. Most said they had also really liked Herman Cain but he’s no longer an option. They also liked Bachmann. And some said Newt Gingrich.
April Buysman, of Orange City, said Santorum had “more hold of the facts” than Bachmann.
Jerry Goedhart, of Orange City, said of Santorum, “He’s more genuine. He comes down to your meetings. He doesn’t stand above anyone.”
“He’s like a regular person,” said Carolyn Goedhart, Jerry’s wife.
Dale Nystrom said he didn’t think Bachmann “had what it took to stand up to liberals." Santorum, on the other hand, won as a conservative in a blue state, he said.
Many said they had liked Gingrich and thought he might be the best to debate Obama. But the word repeated over and over with voters about why they’re no longer with Gingrich: "baggage."
Gingrich has been pummeled on air here in the Hawkeye State with negative ads. One analysis by the Campaign Media Analysis Group said 45 percent of ads that have run were negative against Gingrich. Many admitted to seeing the ads, but didn’t believe they had an impact on them.
“Santorum has less baggage,” said Gene Nitzschkie, of Sioux City. “I know a lot of what’s said about Newt in those ads is B.S., but….”
Lynette Nystrom said she didn't trust Gingrich’s "impulsivity.” “I wouldn’t want him to have his finger on the red button," she said.
Most voters cited "core convictions" when talking about Santorum, and they believe he "shares my beliefs."
A few said they were still undecided -- leaning toward Santorum, but also considering Romney. Santorum "believes what I believe," said Sue Conaway, of Orange City. But she also believes Romney could win the presidency.
To a person here -- unlike at other events for Romney and Perry First Read attended this week -- they all said they would caucus. And that conflict between shared values and electability could well decide the outcome of the caucuses.