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?
Cargin was among the 25 men who came by the Living Center for the weekly fellowship lunch in a converted old brick funeral home. The Wells family -- owners of the $1 billion dairy business -- fund the center, and lunches are put together by the company's new CEO, Mike Wells.
Wells is a Huckabee supporter, but on this day he addresses the conundrum for those who are trying to grasp their role in the process, urging his fellow Christians not to put their faith and trust in any one man. The group, which included blue-collar workers and sheriffs, bankers and social workers, agreed to talk openly about their preferences and their disillusionment.
"How many of you are disgusted with politics?" asks Bob Vander Plaats, another Huckabee man and a lunch regular.
All hands shoot up.
"We don't attend political meetings to find out what's going on in the community," bemoaned Gordon Greene, a county supervisor. "It's extremely disturbing that people don't even take enough interest in their local government . . . "
"Part of the disheartening feeling I have is not just the lack of the ideal candidate, but the optimistic views of the other side, the Democrats' view of their prospects," added Gene Johnson, a Wells employee.
They pledge to vote in the general election even if they skip the caucuses and are resigned to the fact that they may have to vote for -- in their words -- "the lesser of two evils."
"I say we have to go vote because if we don't vote, then all the women will vote and we'll have a woman in the White House and then we got problems," bellows Larry Timmons, who is in the construction business, from the back of the room. This gets a huge laugh. But he's serious.
"God," he notes, "did not plan for a woman to run everything."
Political experts have been perplexed that the evangelical community hasn't rallied sooner and in greater force for Huckabee. "My sense is that the rank and file on the religious right are waiting for cues from identifiable leaders like James Dobson or Tony Perkins," says Cary Covington, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.
But beyond the horse race, beyond the fact that Iowa is a late-deciding state, the mood among many evangelicals here reflects what is happening nationally, as Christian conservatives grapple with apathy and evaluate whether they should count on the government to legislate morality. Down the highway in Sioux City, home to nearly 300 Christian churches, Jeff Moes, a soft-spoken, 44-year-old senior pastor, is one of those who has nudged his congregation into a "new vision" of the process. "I am hearing 'what difference does it make?' " he says. "They are less and less trusting of government."
Moes says he tell his 1,000 congregants that the church is the institution with responsibility to effect change in the community. "We can't rely on one man or the government any longer," he says.
Personally, Moes says he, too, has moved to Huckabee's corner. John McCain, he says, strikes him as "very negative, very angry," and Romney's Mormon religion "bothers more people than they care to admit."
And thrice-married Rudy Giuliani, whose children don't seem to be supporting his candidacy, is a non-starter for Moes and many others, he reports, because "he can't get his own house in order."
"The Bible says that if a man can't lead his own family, how can he manage the house of God?" he says. "And I think it's the same with the country. If he can't get his kids to love and respect him, how can he command the respect of a nation?"
Moes says he simply doesn't get why religious leaders aren't doing more for Huckabee. "The saddest thing for me right now is that no one in the evangelical community is leading -- they are all following," says Moes. "Huckabee is head and shoulders above the rest of the field. . . . If someone like James Dobson came out for Huckabee, it would make all the difference in the world. . . . He's one of us."
Few here were harsh in their assessments of President Bush or his war policy in Iraq. But there was a sense of disappointment on specific issues such as the deficit and immigration reform. "For a number of Iowans -- who are conservative before they are Republican -- they're discouraged by the reckless spending of last few years," says Chris McGowan, an executive vice president at the Sioux City chamber of commerce, who is uncommitted.
As the spaghetti lunch meeting in Le Mars starts unwinding, it becomes clear that the men have many more pressing things on their minds beyond politics. Cargin weeps as he talks of bringing his disabled son to a nearby care facility, and everyone gathers tightly around him for one last prayer.
"It starts right here with us in our homes, making good decisions about ourselves, our families and our communities, and it cascades from there," says Wells. "We have to do the right thing. Putting our faith in man -- it isn't going to work."