STORY CITY, IOWA—There was a line of folks patiently waiting to shake Bob Vander Plaats' hand when I tracked him down following the pro-life film premiere last night. A three-time gubernatorial candidate, Vander Plaats is a well-respected leader among the state's social conservatives and, despite his failure at running his own political campaigns (he's run for governor and lost every time), his endorsement is among the most coveted for any presidential candidate hoping to win Iowa.
Almost every candidate visited Iowa to be shepherded around by Vander Plaats for a full day at some point this year, and everyone except Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman attended last month's Thanksgiving Family Forum hosted by his organization, The Family Leader. There's just one hitch: The Family Leader tied any endorsement to a marriage pledge, which quickly become a source of controversy when it was released this summer. In addition to requiring candidates to remain faithful in their own personal relationships, it tied them to a range of conservative positions including opposition to same-sex marriage and Sharia law. Though, it was one section that drew the most attention at the time (and has since been retracted):
Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.
Only Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were willing to attach their names to the pledge at first, then Rick Perry signed up last month. Earlier this week, Newt Gingrich again declined to sign the pledge, but sent The Family Leader a lengthy letter that endorsed its general spirit and ideas. Vander Plaats had claimed that signing the pledge was a prerequisite for an endorsement, yet it seemed as if Gingrich had done enough when I asked Vander Plaats about it last night. "I think it's a little bit of educator volley," he said. "I'm a former educator; he's a former professor. He probably wanted to put his own words in there. We read the pledge as very strong—as a matter of fact, some of our words are in there. We're like, 'Why don't you just sign it?' So our board will take that under consideration."
Vander Plaats said that his group is waiting to make a final decision on any endorsement until after tonight's debate in Sioux City. If Vander Plaats and The Family Leader decide to endorse Gingrich, they'll expect something in return. When Vander Plaats embarked on a campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices last fall, Gingrich funneled almost $200,000 into the campaign through the American Family Association.