DES MOINES, Iowa – Most of the Republican presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Mitt Romney, set their sights on early-voting Iowa on Saturday, joining discussions on the role of religious faith in public life, along with hot-button social issues such as marriage and abortion.

The setting was a forum hosted by a new evangelical group trying to leave its mark on the campaign in a state where influential social conservatives have struggled to rally behind an alternative to Romney. While the former Massachusetts governor has stayed near the top of national polls, some Republican activists have misgivings about his record on cultural issues.

Romney’s six more socially conservative challengers are actively competing in Iowa to emerge as the preferred candidate among Christian conservatives with just six weeks to go until the Jan. 3 caucuses.

“People are getting close to decision time,” former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., told The Associated Press at a campaign stop in Des Moines. “I think you’re going to see some coalescing in the next couple of weeks.”

Jobs, the economy and the deficit are voter priorities in Iowa and nationally, but it was a focus on social issues that drew the 2012 hopefuls to the event sponsored by The Family Leader, started by a former Republican candidate for governor, Bob Vander Plaats.

Slated to join Santorum were Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, ex-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Romney declined the invitation and was campaigning in New Hampshire. He is not competing aggressively for the social conservative vote in Iowa as he did in the 2008 presidential race. His leaner Iowa campaign is focused more on holding supporters from his second-place finish four years ago and appealing to economic conservatives.

But he also has avoided multicandidate events in early-voting states, even one this month in Iowa by the National Association of Manufacturers and co-hosted by Gov. Terry Branstad, a pro-business Republican.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also planned to skip the event. He, too, has a mixed record on social issues, has avoided campaigning in Iowa and is focusing his early-state campaign on New Hampshire, home of the leadoff primary.