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Republican candidates court support of Iowa's evangelical activists

Evangelical activists are Iowa's most potent Republican voting bloc and the fight for their support is in full swing among the presidential candidates competing to emerge as a more conservative alternative to early front-runner Mitt Romney.

A half-dozen GOP contenders flocked to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum on Saturday in hopes of gaining any edge with this influential group barely 10 weeks before the state's Jan. 3 caucuses.

These voters have yet to rally around any single candidate.

In fact, there are deep divisions among these voters about where to throw their support.

"I don't see anyone galvanizing people like they did for Mike Huckabee [in 2008]," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Activists attending the forum at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines heard pitches from six candidates: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The candidates held campaign stops throughout the day, such as Perry's early pheasant hunting excursion with U.S. Rep. Steve King at the Loess Hills Hunting Preserve outside of Akron, a small town in the western part of the state.

King hasn't endorsed a 2012 candidate and wouldn't commit to backing Perry. But hunting is "an instantaneous bond," King told reporters.

The forum didn't draw Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has led national GOP polls all year and was in New Hampshire on Saturday. Despite an aggressive effort by the event's planners, he declined an invitation, in part because he is well-known in Iowa from his 2008 run.

It's also true that he has had a touchy relationship with evangelical conservatives, many of whom are leery of Romney's Mormon faith and his changed positions on social issues such as gay and abortion rights.

Polls four years ago showed that about half of Iowa's GOP caucus-goers considered themselves born-again Christians.

Bachmann built her campaign around outreach to conservative Christian pastors, but influential pastors say the group is divided.

Perry gained attention for a national day of prayer he hosted in Houston in August. But some of his luster with evangelical voters has faded.

Santorum, an anti-abortion leader while in the Senate, has impressed social conservative leaders in Iowa, but trails Perry and Bachmann in fundraising.