This week kicks off the 2012 presidential primary battle. With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary upon us evangelical voters are being told that the shopping season is over.

After more than a year of campaigning and numerous debates, the conventional wisdom holds that now is the time to settle on a candidate and get on with the business of defeating President Barack Obama.

That approach has it completely backward.

Settling on a candidate at the start of the primary and caucus season tells voters, particularly evangelicals, that they must abandon principles for pragmatism. It tells them that their beliefs and ideals don’t count for much, even though voting hasn’t even begun.

That approach puts voters in the uncomfortable the position of having to choose the least among evils when it comes to the three front runners at this date. And that’s a sorry lot to choose from.

One is a Mormon candidate who has been all over the map in his beliefs about abortion and same-sex marriage. Another is a Southern Baptist-turned-Catholic with three wives, two divorces, and numerous accusations of immorality who has been equally inconsistent when it comes to key issues. And then there’s the Baptist obstetrician with weird ties to neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, not to mention a foreign policy approach which blames the United States for the 9/11 terror attacks.

Is this really the best we can do?

As the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, and someone who made national headlines for my comments at a candidate event last October, I am constantly asked for my take on the race and the candidate whom I think people should support. Although I personally endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry in October, I would never attempt to tell my congregation for whom they should vote. Thoughtful people can make up their own minds.

Still, I do think there are some important points that evangelical voters should keep in mind as we move into the thick of the primary season. The first – and this is good news – is that we are not at the end of the shopping season, but the beginning of a long process designed to produce a palatable candidate at its end. While it seems like the campaign has been going forever, in reality it is just getting started.

No matter who wins the early contests, Iowa and New Hampshire won’t decide anything. In fact, their impact on the race may actually be negligible. As Michael Barone recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, “As Iowa Goes, So Goes Iowa.” For that matter, so should New Hampshire, this year at least, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is expected to win big as a favorite son.

The point is, voters don’t have to settle on – or settle for – any of the so-called front runners.

William F. Buckley suggested that Republicans should choose the “most conservative candidate who is electable.”

However, I would suggest that voters—especially evangelical Christians—follow a more principled approach in choosing the next occupant of the White House. We should be looking for the most competent, consistently conservative Christian with character.

Both President Obama and all Republican candidates meet the competence threshold. But this coming election is about more than just competence --a criterion which is highly subjective. -- It’s also about character and ideology and the future direction our country.

It should surprise no one that I believe the ideal candidate should be a Christian. That is not because I am a pastor, but because ours has traditionally been a Christian nation. Christianity has served America well. Even John Jay, the nation’s first Chief Justice and co-author of "The Federalist Papers," wrote, “It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

Additionally, we need someone who has been consistently conservative throughout his career.

Where do the current candidates stand on issues like abortion and the sanctity of marriage, and where have they stood in the past? If one candidate has not been consistent on these issues, how can we be sure he will keep his commitments on these issues if actually elected, especially when it comes to nominating federal judges and Supreme Court justices?

Finally, we must consider how a candidate conducts his personal life with integrity of character. Professions of faith in Christ are not enough; they must be validated by conduct. The book of Proverbs labels someone who cannot control his speech or appetites a “fool.” Who wants a fool in the Oval Office?

Evangelical Christians must push back against those pundits and partisans who tell us that we must settle for a highly flawed candidate. The primary season is the time to vote one’s conscience and support the candidate whose beliefs most closely mirror our own. I don’t deny that in the general election evangelicals may have to choose among the lesser of two evils. But not right now. We still have plenty of shopping days left.

Dr. Robert Jeffress is pastor of the 11,000-member of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and author of the new book, "Twilight's Last Gleaming." His radio program “Pathway to Victory” is heard daily on more than 700 stations nationwide.