"There is a determination in the movement not to be divided in 2016. There is more conversation now about coalescing behind one candidate than there's ever been before," said Steve Deace, a popular Christian conservative radio host in Iowa. "We've watched what happened the last two times when we split our base."
Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader and one of Iowa's leading evangelical activists, has witnessed firsthand the consequence of conservatives waiting too long to agree on a candidate. He was chairman of Huckabee's winning Iowa campaign in 2008, but watched as Mitt Romney (then a conservative favorite) and Fred Thompson splintered the conservative vote and allowed McCain to take the nomination.
Four years later, Vander Plaats endorsed Santorum before Iowa's caucuses—but many of his allies held back, allowing Perry, Newt Gingrich, and others to siphon off conservative support and let Romney (now the establishment favorite) run uncontested up the middle.
This time, Vander Plaats said, conservatives understand the importance of rallying around one person early.
"They saw 2008. They saw 2012. They saw that when we divide our support we get who we don't want," Vander Plaats said. "You're going to get McCain or you're going to get Romney."
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Cruz and Huckabee both have been courting Perkins, who's regarded as the chief rainmaker in evangelical politics. (In fact, during one recent stretch, Perkins said he spent five of six weekends with either Cruz or Huckabee—or both.) Cruz has paid a multiple visits to the early, evangelical-friendly states of Iowa and South Carolina this year. Huckabee has done the same—and, for good measure, is traveling with a group of nearly two-dozen Christian leaders from those states on a 10-day European trip next month.
Santorum supporters are quick to point out that he, too, has maintained a strong presence in Iowa this year—and, like Huckabee and Cruz, appears increasingly likely to run in 2016. In fact, Santorum and Huckabee appeared at the same Iowa Republican office in Sioux City last week—on back-to-back days.
Perry has been to the state repeatedly, too; Vander Plaats joked he could be running for "governor of Iowa." All have faithful followings in Iowa and elsewhere, making the goal of unifying early behind a single conservative candidate so difficult to achieve.
"It would take a Herculean effort to unite all of these people and all of these organizations," said one prominent conservative activist with ties to multiple contenders. "I mean, [Ronald] Reagan didn't even get that treatment."
Or, as Perkins summarized the talk: "It's easy to say, but hard to do."
As the August house party demonstrated, there certainly will be further competition for evangelical support—even if their efforts aren't as advanced. Besides Jindal and Perry, there are other names—surgeon Ben Carson, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—mentioned as potential dark-horse candidates. (Walker, however, alienated some potential allies by saying the gay-marriage fight is "over" in Wisconsin. "Whatever air was in that balloon is gone," Vander Plaats said.)