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Will Social Conservatives Lead Huckabee To Promised Land?
Two years ago, and just four days apart, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runners in the race to win the Iowa Caucus, began their quest to become president with a pilgrimage of sorts.
Both Romney and Huckabee are seasoned politicians who look comfortable speaking before any type of audience. But during the last 16 active months of campaigning – and since the first time they made separate visits to the state to begin meeting with supporters in January, 2006, — they’ve taken on slightly different strategies that, depending on various factors, will shape the outcome when the caucus results are tallied.
Both men, and several of their rivals in Iowa, have actively courted Evangelicals in the state. But while Huckabee has paid particular attention to social conservatives, Romney has run a more broad-based campaign, seeking to win the support of voters attracted to the party’s roots as a home for social-, political-, or foreign-policy conservatives.
The move is a bit of a gambit for both men. No Republican has ever won the Iowa Caucus by simply appealing to pro-family conservatives as Huckabee is attempting to do. But at the same time those social conservatives have never been as visible as they are this year, and few people could imagine a scenario where one candidate was poised to collect as many of their votes as Huckabee might on Thursday night.
According to the most recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, almost half Republicans who are likely to attend their caucus describe themselves as “born again” or “fundamentalist” Christians. Among them, Huckabee holds a 47 percent to 24 percent edge. The pool gives Huckabee a six point overall lead.Both men began their Iowa odysseys in 2006 with visits to Sioux County in northwest Iowa, perhaps the most conservative area in the state. There, locals crowd into high school gymnasiums on Friday nights and the pews of the local church on Sunday mornings with equal conviction. And, in Iowa, it’s a place where elections are won or lost.
“If you want to do well in a Republican primary in Iowa,” says Iowa House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, “you have to do well in Sioux County.”
Christian conservatives – and some ardently pro-life Catholic congregations – are scattered across the state, in both rural and urban areas. But nowhere are they as dominant as in western Iowa’s 5th Congressional District, where about 60 percent of Iowa’ 600,000 registered Republicans live.
Huckabee’s state campaign chair is Bob Vander Plaats, a native of Sheldon, a town of 5,000 that straddles the O’Brien and Sioux County borders. Vander Plaats was a star basketball player at Western Christian High School in Hull, a Sioux County burg. He attended college at Northwestern College in Orange City, the Sioux County seat.
Gary Bauer’s strong views on gay rights, reproductive rights and school choice, helped him win three northwest Iowa counties in 2000 and endeared himself to pockets of social conservatives in other parts of the state, the same group that Huckabee is trying to mine. Bauer, by the way, finished first in Sioux, O’Brien and Lyon counties in that election.
Bauer never enjoyed Huckabee’s widespread support among social conservatives, but there are parallels. Huckabee shares Bauer’s passion on family issues and can articulate his support of ending abortion rights and outlawing gay marriages. Several of the candidates in the current election have attempted to frame themselves as the only true conservative in the race, but the trick is avoiding the line between appearing pragmatic and doctrinal.
Although 40 percent of registered Republicans in the state are identified as Evangelicals, fiscal- and even foreign-policy conservatives are also well-represented in the party. No other candidate has worked so hard to court social conservatives as Huckabee, although several have made a show of it.
According to his public schedules, Huckabee has held scores of meetings with Iowa religious leaders, preached in Iowa churches, and availed himself to a variety of anti-abortion groups. He was also the only candidate invited to appear at the Iowa Renewal Project’s Pastors’ Policy Briefing “Rediscovering God in America” at the Marriott Downtown in Des Moines.
In addition, he’s appeared on talk shows on WHO-AM more times than any other Republican. WHO is the largest radio station in the state with a broadcast signal that reaches much of the Midwest. Its two most popular talk shows are magnets for social conservatives: Mickelson in the Morning, hosted by Jan Mickelson, at 9 a.m., and the Steve Deace Show, which airs during the afternoon commute home. WHO program director Van Harden points out that the station has an open invitation to all candidates to appear on the station.
While Huckabee has appeared most, Harden points out that several other candidates have come in to visit with various talk show hosts on several occasions. “We’ve had an open invitation to all of them and, frankly, at this time of year we can’t get too much of them,” he said. He noted that Tom Tancredo, a Republican congressman from Colorado who ended his bid last month, announced his candidacy on the Mickelson show.
Mickelson and Romney got into a tiff just before Christmas when Romney accused the talk show host of using a hidden camera to catch him speaking out of context during unguarded moments. The station has if that was the case they would have fired Mickelson.
Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said that pro-family voters in Iowa have spent more time studying the candidates this year than in previous years, in part because so many of the Republican presidential contenders have claimed the mantle of “true conservative.”
His group, a non-profit with tax exempt status, refrains from endorsing or even inertly supporting any of the candidates. But the group has held several events designed to give its membership an up-close look at the candidates, and except for Rudy Giuliani, all the Republicans have participated.
At the same time, Romney has taken on a “big tent” philosophy, courting religious, fiscal, and foreign-policy conservatives. While running for state office in Massachusetts Romney was an advocate for abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but he says not that he’s had a change of heart.
The big question on Thursday night is whether the large bloc of social conservatives will give Huckabee – who holds the lead in the latest Des Moines Register poll – enough of a boost to win Iowa. Most people agree that Romney’s large and experienced campaign staff, which includes veterans who have engineered several political victories in the state – are prepared to get people to the polls. But leading in many polls, Huckabee and his supporters are counting on a political miracle.