DES MOINES, IOWA — DES MOINES, Iowa -- Days before Monday's all-important Iowa presidential caucuses, many of the Republican candidates are stepping up their efforts to "out-conservative" each other in hot pursuit of this state's most treasured political prize: the religious conservative vote.
But unlike in previous election years, when those voters proved a potent force in rallying behind a single candidate, the Christian conservatives have splintered their support this year and possibly diluted their strength.
"It would have been nice if we could have united," says Ione Dilley, chairwoman of Iowa's Christian Coalition, who is personally supporting Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. "But we've never had so many candidates before who were all so aligned on issues. It makes it a new ballgame this time."
25% of vote
Religious conservatives make up about one-quarter of Iowa's electorate, and 40 percent to 45 percent of the state's Republicans, says Arthur Miller, director of the University of Iowa's Social Science Institute.
"When people say the religious right controls the Republican Party, they're not kidding," Mr. Miller said.
In 1988, religious conservatives proved their strength by sweeping the evangelist Pat Robertson to second place in the Iowa caucuses to the astonishment of many, including George Bush, who finished third.
But this year, with nearly all the Republican rivals espousing a conservative agenda, the religious conservative bloc has failed to coalesce behind a single candidate.
Instead it has spread its support thinly among four candidates -- Mr. Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Patrick J. Buchanan and Alan L. Keyes, the conservative former Maryland senatorial candidate.
And neither the surging candidacy of Steve Forbes, whose more moderate social views have made him unacceptable to some, nor Mr. Buchanan's boost from his surprise victory in the Louisiana caucuses, where Christian conservatives played a decisive role, appears to be enough of a catalyst to gather large blocs of evangelical voters behind one candidate.
No single 'champion'
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said yesterday that the movement is split because "there is no one, clear, convincing, unequivocal pro-family champion who comes out of the movement. There are a lot of people vying for that title."
Mr. Dole, considered the least ideological of the four, may be the beneficiary of the division.
Seeking to expand on the big lead he already enjoys among moderate Republicans, Mr. Dole worked hard early to recruit his share of the state's Christian conservative leaders, such as Ms. Dilley.
"That helped in dividing that group and preventing it from becoming a monolithic force in this year's caucuses," said David Oman, co-chairman of the Dole campaign and a former state Republican co-chairman.
Mr. Gramm, on the other hand has suffered from the division of loyalties among evangelical voters, says Bob Renaud, minister of the Fellowship Baptist Church in Des Moines. "There's no question in anybody's mind, if Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes were not in the race, Phil Gramm would own Iowa."
Mr. Renaud, who co-chairs Iowan Families for Gramm, says he believes the conservative candidates, by their very number, are "hurting each other" and possibly making room for the more moderate Mr. Forbes.
But with the leadership of the movement so fractured, he says, it would be "impossible" for religious conservatives to now unite behind one candidate.
Mr. Buchanan, who has built his campaign here largely around a vehement stand against abortion, says he hopes to pick up some new support from undecided voters who might now see him as a more credible candidate after his Louisiana victory.
Two local polls released yesterday show Mr. Buchanan in third place behind Mr. Dole and Mr. Forbes, well ahead of Mr. Gramm and Mr. Keyes and positioned to capitalize on his new momentum.
Although some undecided voters interviewed said they were not swayed by the results of the Louisiana caucuses, a few, like Jeff Mathers of Grimes, said they might now lean a little closer to Mr. Buchanan.
Clinton 'hard to beat'
"That was very encouraging to me as a conservative Christian," said Mr. Mathers, who is torn between Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Keyes. "Bill Clinton, with all his faults, is still a man who is hard to beat. Whoever the Republican nominee is has got to be someone who can meet him in the national election."
Electability, in fact, is one reason why many religious conservatives -- who generally favor prayer in schools, parental choice in education, as well as bans on most abortions -- are supporting Mr. Dole, even though they may be more attracted to others.
"I'd vote for Pat if I thought he had a chance," said Jack Schlueter, a Dole supporter who is a semiretired farmer and a Republican committeeman.
Similarly, Don Harms, a Des Moines teacher, favors some of the more conservative candidates like Mr. Gramm, but says: "You can't be this conservative and be elected president. The moderates would rather have Clinton. But Dole is moderate enough to be accepted by the mainstream Republicans and moderate Democrats."
Still, some Christian conservatives say they will vote their conscience. "I'm not going to get behind the person who is most winnable," says Kim Gordon, a Keyes supporter. "I'm going to support the person who is most representative of conservative values."
Sign of sophistication
Mr. Reed, speaking yesterday on CNN, said the debate between those making pragmatic choices and those going with the "choice of your heart" is a positive sign that the religious conservative movement has grown in maturity, diversity and political sophistication over the past eight to 10 years.
But if such voters are divided now, most of those interviewed said that once a Republican nominee emerges, they will gladly rally behind that person in a concerted effort to defeat President Clinton.
"What the Republicans' candidates have not been able to do," says Mr. Miller of the University of Iowa, "Bill Clinton will do very effectively."