Four years ago at this point in the 2007/2008 presidential campaign, Sioux City Republican Bob Vander Plaats was pleased to see a surge of support for his favored candidate, Mike Huckabee. Huckabee went on to win the Jan. 3, 2008, Iowa caucuses.
But there is a wide field of conservative Republican candidates this year, many of them with admirable abilities, Vander Plaats said Friday, and that makes settling on a pick very difficult. Interviewing Vander Plaats for a piece tomorrow reviewing the field one month out from caucus day, he gave thoughts on Herman Cain as he plummets in the polls and on Newt Gingrich, who is rising in Iowa and elsewhere.
One startling piece -- Vander Plaats said perhaps 80 percent of conservative caucusgoers may still be persuaded by the candidates.
"I really do believe that 80 percent of the caucusgoers could still be influenced to go one direction or another. The reason I say that, for those of us who wake up and we live and we breathe this every day, I am still authentically undecided. And if I'm undecided, I gotta believe there's a lot of other people undecided," he said.
The Family Leader group, headed by three-time gubernatorial candidate Vander Plaats, held a series of candidate forums in 2011 and has narrowed the number of candidates for a possible endorsement to four. That list includes Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.
"Conservatives in general are looking for the alternative to Romney. They just see Romney as having the trust gap on key issues. And not just because because he's been on both sides of key issues, but he's been passionately on both sides of each issue," Vander Plaats said.
Vander Plaats said The Family Leader board of directors may not be able to reduce the number from four, so an endorsement may not happen.
Vander Plaats continues to say that if conservatives split their support for many in the field, that will mean Mitt Romney, the most moderate candidate competing in Iowa, would slip in to win the caucuses. That's a highly viable scenario, he said.
"That's why I believe he'll double-down in Iowa," Vander Plaats said, and ramp up the Team Romney effort here over the next 31 days.
Vander Plaats said Cain didn't make the final four even before the allegations of extramarital affairs. That was because Cain had "foreign policy gaffes" and spoke in favor of individual states determining whether gay marriage should be instituted.
"I believe, with all the stuff happening right now and him reassessing his campaign, I'm telling you this as a former candidate -- anytime you say 'I'm reassessing my campaign,' you can raise no more money and you can get no more volunteers. So that tells me, it's pretty much over," Vander Plaats said.
(ADD AT 1:30 P.M. -- Cain is holding a Saturday press conference to discuss the future of his campaign.)
The fact that Gingrich had two divorces won't automatically take him out of play for conservatives, Vander Plaats asserted.
"People don't like everything about his past, but they believe he has had life transformation, and not a Road-to-Des-Moines-conversion, but this has been several years back. He's had life change, and they believe he is uniquely prepared for such an environment that we face today, both domestically and internationally," he said.
Cornerstone World Outreach associate pastor Cary Gordon of Sioux City on Thursday endorsed Santorum. Vander Plaats said he could see the logic of the selection.
"A lot of people love Santorum, and they love Bachmann. I love both those guys, their core values are solid, their convictions are there. So, yeah, I can see where Cary Gordon landed there. I think you still have a lot of conservatives taking another look at Rick Perry, he has been consistent and he has delivered on a lot of our issues," he said.