Whoever gains traction with this crucial constituency in Iowa could not only win the straw poll but could galvanize religious conservatives throughout the country who remain a powerful force in Republican politics. On Thursday night, GOP contenders squared off at a debate in Ames, hoping to more sharply define their candidacies.
In 2007, with no other major candidate rallying the Christian conservative movement, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee came from behind to finish second in the straw poll. He then won the Iowa caucuses and several other primary contests by courting religious conservatives.
This time, that voting bloc has more options. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) is a home-schooling parent. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) has spoken about when she “gave my heart to Jesus Christ” as a 16-year-old. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty speaks openly about his shift from Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) is eyeing the sizable group of Huckabee backers who are strongly affiliated with the tea party movement.
And conservatives across the nation are closely watching Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an evangelical who held a massive prayer rally in Houston last week and plans to announce his candidacy Saturday. His name is not on the straw poll ballot, but his supporters are waging a write-in campaign.
“There’s not the convergence this time,” said Chuck Hurley, a 2008 Huckabee backer who runs the Iowa Family Policy Center. Hurley, who has not yet decided who his favorite candidate is, added, “My friends are all over the place.”
Winning over these voters could catapult a fledgling campaign. Huckabee had little money in 2008, but he had energetic volunteers who made up for his fundraising gap. They organized supporters and even created campaign literature.
The former Huckabee backers say they are concerned about the growing budget deficit and President Obama’s economic policies, like Republicans all over the country. Many support the aims of the tea party, and some consider themselves part of it.
But these one-time Huckabee voters are social conservatives who say a candidate must have a consistent record of limiting abortion and opposing gay marriage to get their support. Some are strongly critical of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who in the past has suggested that he supports abortion rights.
Many are highly religious. In the 2008 Iowa caucuses, only 19 percent of voters who considered themselves “born again” or “evangelical” backed Romney, compared with 46 percent who supported Huckabee, according to entrance polling of caucus-goers by the National Election Pool.