IOWA - As the Republican race for the US presidential elections opens in Iowa on Tuesday, January 3, faith is expected to play a key role in picking up the Republican candidate through weighing his Christian credentials.
"I choose Rick Santorum," Eileen Gordon, 62, mother of influential local pastor Cary Gordon, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"He represents the moral values that are closest to my heart."
On Tuesday evening, about 120,000 Iowans will gather for their first-in-the-nation nominating contest to crown their choice for the Republican Party nominee.
After a series of state-by-state votes, the eventual winner will take on President Barack Obama in the November 6 elections, in which the Democrat incumbent is hoping to secure a second term.
As the election train reaches Iowa, Santorum, a Catholic, would have made the natural evangelical choice, succeeding in courting Christian conservative vote.
But the rural midwestern state has a packed field of candidates, voters would weight who would best represent what are perceived to be Christian values.
Santorum will be competing with two Mormons -- former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
The 53-year-old Pennsylvanian has pushed into third place with 15 percent support, with Romney and Texas libertarian Representative Ron Paul leading the pack, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll released Saturday.
Religion has always played a key role for choosing Republican presidential candidates.
In 2008, the evangelical vote swung behind ordained Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, giving him a surprise early victory over all Republican Party hopefuls, even the eventual nominee, veteran Senator John McCain.
A report by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals estimated about 30 percent to 35 percent of the nation's population -- or about 100 million people -- identifies themselves as being an evangelical.
Evangelicals have long been the most faithful Republican supporters, with 37 percent of all Republican and Republican-leaning voters being evangelical Protestants.
They played a pivotal role in tilting the scales in former president George W. Bush's favor in his 2004 re-election bid.
American analysts are not surprised by the role played by faith in determining presidential candidates.
"In a year which is supposed to be dominated by the economy -- which is a family issue -- we have seen the pro-life issue advance, the marriage issue advance... and conservative issues advance," Bob Vander Plaats, head of conservative Family Leader group, told CNN Monday.
"People of faith are still going to have an incredible influence in this caucus."
Seeking to woo voters, Santorum has hammered down a message of rejecting gay marriage and abortion, even in cases of rape, to the praise of his supporters.
"We believe that God's natural law always supersedes man's law," Gordon said.
"God's law is that a man and a woman produce a child. For that reason, we don't believe we can make a law that allows marriage between a man and a man.
"Sometimes, candidates woo us when they want our votes. Then they go to Washington and they don't always live up their promises. They forget about our stand on pro-life and family values. I think Rick Santorum wouldn't do that."
Gerald Pallesen, 83, a World War II veteran, says he believes in the sanctity of marriage and that a "person begins with conception, and they're going to use my tax dollars for abortion. I'm absolutely opposed to that.
"Newt Gingrich would easily win a one-on-one debate with Barack Obama. But we're not electing the winner of the debate. And Newt Gingrich has a lot of baggage," he added, referring to the former speaker of the House who is on his third marriage.
The faith card is not played only by Santorum.
Texas Governor Rick Perry and Iowa-born US congresswoman Michele Bachmann have also crisscrossed the state in recent weeks trumpeting their own Christian values.
Perry, a former Air Force pilot, told an audience recently how religion had helped him find the "right way" after he returned to civilian life from military service.
Bachmann, who has seen her campaign struggle after an early surge in the polls, said there was still a lot to play for.
"I think Tuesday night people are going to see a miracle," said Bachmann, whose long-shot hopes rest heavily on Iowa."People make their decision, quite honestly, in the caucus room."