Republican Faithful Await a Savior in Iowa

Evangelicals' support for Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a minister, has surged in the early caucus state.
Evangelicals' support for Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a minister, has surged in the early caucus state. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

LE MARS, Iowa -- There is a comforting certainty to life in this conservative hamlet 25 miles north of Sioux City, where Christian men gather every Wednesday at noon to be fortified by fellowship and prayer. Folks are quite proud of the 10-foot-tall ice cream sundae statue at the center of town, a symbol of the 120 million gallons of Blue Bunny ice cream churned out annually here at the family-owned dairy.

But these days, there is an uncertainty about politics and their civic responsibility that is unsettling. This has been rock-solid Bush country. Conservatives and evangelicals were largely at peace in the knowledge that their president shared their Christian values. But this year, they aren't at all sure anymore where to put their trust for 2008 -- or whether they should even bother trying.

Listen to Rich Cargin, a construction business owner and man of faith, articulate his thinking on the GOP contest here:

"I like Huckabee," he says. "Romney -- I wouldn't hold it against him because he's a Mormon, although I have to wonder. . . . But that doesn't trouble me as much as his change of positions. You have to wonder whether he or Giuliani would put people on the bench that reflect my Christian values."

So does this mean that Cargin can be counted on to attend the Jan. 3 caucuses and support Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister? Not necessarily.

"There's a football game that night -- it's going to be really tough."

The Orange Bowl is only one of the distractions plaguing Iowa's Republican Party six weeks before the caucuses. As Huckabee poll numbers take a huge leap in Iowa, GOP leaders fret that there's not enough passion in the fractured party to propel voters to the caucuses.

"There is a void -- a piece of the puzzle is missing," laments Ray Hoffman, the chairman of the state party who comes from this western part of the state.

"The field just never felt settled. There's been a lot of waiting -- waiting for Gingrich, waiting to see if Fred Thompson would catch fire. Now, I think for a lot of committed conservatives, they wonder, do I just stand back or hold my nose and vote for someone I don't agree with but who can maybe beat Hillary?"

Nowhere is this ambivalence playing out more than in Le Mars, a town of 10,000 people. There are about 40 blacks and 200 Hispanics living in this community, according to the 2000 Census. In most ways, Le Mars is a paragon of Republican Iowa, where exit polls in previous years show that about three-quarters of GOP caucus-goers identify themselves as conservatives, and more than one-third as evangelicals.

Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor with the affable manner, would seem to be the natural choice here, and a Washington Post-ABC poll conducted over five nights in Iowa ending Sunday shows Huckabee's support in the state tripling since July -- bringing him within striking distance of Mitt Romney's well-heeled operation. Sixty-eight percent of Huckabee's support comes from self-identified evangelical Protestants.

But do the people who say they favor him feel compelled to vote for him, to make their voices heard this year?

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