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First on CNN: Key social conservatives secretly meet to stop Romney in Iowa

By Shannon Travis, CNN Political Reporter
November 23, 2011 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is facing resistance among some social conservatives, campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines this summer.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is facing resistance among some social conservatives, campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines this summer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Social conservatives in Iowa quietly meet to find alternative to Mitt Romney
  • Many Republican religious leaders in the state call Romney a "flip-flopper"
  • Romney campaign says candidate "is running a 50-state campaign"

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) -- Representatives for leading social conservative groups in Iowa held a secret meeting Monday as part of an effort with one main goal: find and support a Republican presidential candidate who can stop Mitt Romney in Iowa.

The idea: avoid splintering the conservative vote in the state by rallying around one GOP rival who could win Iowa's Jan. 3 caucus and then challenge Romney in New Hampshire and the other early voting states.

Many social conservatives and other religious leaders in the state have openly labeled the former Massachusetts governor as a "flip-flopper," a criticism the campaign frequently beats back, while others have seen Romney's Mormon faith as an issue. And many of them have openly hoped for someone to emerge as a viable alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.

CNN reached out to the Romney campaign for reaction to the secret meeting and the overall anti-Romney effort.

"Gov. Romney is running a 50-state campaign. He's going to be competitive in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and all the other early states," said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams. "He's reaching out to each and every voter."

One attendee at the meeting earlier this week told CNN they wanted "to see if they could come to a consensus of who they might endorse."

But the source was skeptical about the impact of Iowa social conservatives rallying behind one candidate.

"If you want to stop Romney you're probably going to have to have some organization [and] some money," the source said. "Somebody who's at 5% or 6% in the polls, and they endorse, I don't think that does any good."

Multiple sources have described to CNN details of the meeting and the general effort.

The meeting, the group's first, took place in a private office building in Des Moines on Monday. In attendance were representatives from the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, The Family Leader, the group Iowa Right to Life, and a representative for the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America. Some pastors from prominent Iowa churches also attended the meeting.

The effort seems limited to Iowa, with no apparent outreach to similar groups in other states.

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While the concerns have been voiced before, what appears to be new is the meeting itself and organizers' hope for like-minded groups to come together against Romney, at least in Iowa.

Sources say there were about 20 to 25 people present at the meeting and that another meeting is planned for Monday of next week.

The effort is said to still be in the discussion phase. Participants were said to have narrowed their focus down to four candidates: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Iowa social conservatives want to find alternative

CNN spoke with Chuck Hurley, vice-president of The Family Leader, regarding the meeting. Initially, he was reluctant to discuss the gathering.

"There was a statement made in the meeting not to divulge the contents of the meeting," Hurley said.

Hurley said he had invited some attendees and confirmed the meeting's purpose was, in fact, to seek a consensus pick to topple Romney, who has been at or near the top of recent polls in the state.

He added that the group is not trying to take on any authority role.

"They're very unofficial," Hurley said.

Hurley also helped to clarify why Georgia businessman Herman Cain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul were not part of the conversation.

"My best recollection is that there were some issues about states' rights, as they pertained to the sanctity of human life and marriage," Hurley said, although he could not recall specific arguments against the two candidates. "I think that was more Ron Paul."

Hurley also stressed many attendees praised Herman Cain. But there were concerns about "a lack of clarity with Mr. Cain... lack of consistency on issues of sanctity of life and marriage."

"I think with Mr. Cain there was some concern he's maybe not quite experienced enough in civics... And maybe not quite ready for that number one job," Hurley added.

The Cain and Paul campaigns challenged similar, yet separate, criticisms on Tuesday when one of the groups took both men out of consideration for its presidential endorsement.

Regarding the sexual harassment claims lobbed against Cain -- claims the candidate strongly denies -- Hurley said: "That was not mentioned, that I can recall."

Jenifer Bowen, the executive director of Iowa Right to Life, also attended the Monday meeting.

"I was invited by the leader of The Family Leader," Bowen said, referring to Hurley. "My understanding was, I'm assuming he was the one who really spearheaded the meeting."

Bowen explained that she listened to the appeals from attendees. However, Bowen said neither she nor board members of her group will endorse a candidate ahead of the caucuses.

For those reasons, Bowen said she did not participate in the conversation and will not attend the upcoming meeting or others.

Several groups rise up against Romney

Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, who was not at the Monday meeting and spoke to CNN only broadly about the conservative opposition to Romney.

"It's no secret that there's many conservatives throughout Iowa who are looking for the alternative to Romney, who can win Iowa, and then who can go the distance in New Hampshire and beyond and become our nominee that can beat Obama," Vander Plaats said.

"Our concern is that if the conservatives stay as fragmented as they are, that Romney could win the Iowa caucuses. And if he wins the Iowa caucuses, he'll be the nominee," Vander Plaats added. "So I think there's an urgency to say, 'Well who is the person that could best challenge [Romney] then move on after Iowa?"

Kerry Jech, senior minister of the New Hope Christian Church in Marshalltown, explained the opposition to the former Massachusetts governor among some Christian and social conservatives.

"I think there is a concern we not splinter our support amongst several candidates to the point that somebody gets in the nomination who doesn't share our values," Jech said.

Jech added that, in his view, Romney has "waffled" on two issues that social conservatives care deeply about: the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, and abortion.

Yet Jech warned, "I don't think any of us are going to find a candidate we agree with 100% on every issue."

Some also feel that Romney has repeatedly snubbed this key voting group in Iowa.

"I think he is sticking his finger in the eyes of the social conservatives by neglecting [them]," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Romney going after 'all caucus goers'

Citing the candidate's "pro-jobs, pro-growth message" and 25 years in business, Romney campaign spokesman Williams said the governor "is the strongest candidate to take on and defeat President Obama in 2012."

"Gov. Romney is reaching out to all caucus goers, to all primary voters -- to everybody who intends to vote in the Republican nominating contests across the country," Williams said.

As for claims that Romney is inconsistent, Williams said the former Massachusetts governor has clearly "laid out his positions in his book, on the campaign trail and in numerous policy proposals."

Romney currently leads, or is near the top, in several polls for Iowa. A recent CNN/Time/ORC International poll from late October, as well as a Des Moines Register survey, both showed Romney essentially tied with Cain.

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