By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
WAUKEE, Iowa -- Lori Hommer is threading blue ribbon through contribution envelopes to hang on the Christmas trees at Point of Grace Church, and she scarcely pauses when asked if she's decided on a candidate in next month's caucuses.
"Yes, Mike Huckabee," said Hommer, 50, who teaches at the church. "He has conservative Christian values . . . the same values I have." As to the man who had been leading in the polls here until recently, she said, "I could probably support Mitt Romney if I had to. I'm just a little leery of him. I'm just not sure he's genuine."
Hommer was both typical and atypical of the people I spoke with during Sunday-morning visits to three evangelical churches outside Des Moines.
She was atypical in that she was even thinking about caucusing. Most people -- noshing on bagels before the early service at Point of Grace, dropping off toddlers at day care at Valley Evangelical Free Church, sipping coffee after services at Crossroads Fellowship Christian Reformed -- practically recoiled when asked about caucuses.
It wasn't a question of the event conflicting with the Orange Bowl or coming so soon after the holidays or of dissatisfaction with the field -- though those may also depress turnout. They had made it to church on an icy December morning, but politics didn't interest them enough for them to consider venturing out on a frigid January night.
Hommer was typical in that, among likely caucusgoers at the churches I visited, support for Huckabee was overwhelming. I encountered more Hillary Clinton voters (one) than Romney backers.
"Romney seems like a politician to me -- a little bit like Hillary Clinton -- they're going to say what they need to say to get elected," said Nate Schelhaas, 33, an Urbandale actuary who attends Crossroads, where Huckabee preached this summer.
"At first I was more interested in Mitt Romney," said Jeff Williams, 41, pastor at Point of Grace. "I'm just too nervous about his past changes on issues. If the right situation comes along, will he change policies again?"
Huckabee is getting help delivering that message from some surprising bedfellows: A new ad by the Republican Majority for Choice details Romney's shifting positions on abortion -- and urges him to flip back, but it may have the effect of driving more voters to the staunchly antiabortion Huckabee.
For now, Williams is wavering between Huckabee and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, but Huckabee's recent surge has swayed him. "As he became stronger, I was more interested."
With evangelicals expected to comprise four in 10 Republican caucusgoers, voters such as Williams hold the key to a Huckabee victory -- and they could deliver it. In the latest Post-ABC News poll of likely GOP caucusgoers, the former Arkansas governor led Romney 44 percent to 22 percent among evangelical Protestants.
It is no coincidence that Huckabee's new TV ad opens with a shot of the Southern Baptist minister and the words "Christian Leader." A little unsettling -- imagine an ad touting Joe Lieberman as a "Jewish leader" -- and perhaps a subtle effort to reinforce evangelical voters' squeamishness about Romney's Mormonism, but no doubt effective: Huckabee's "Christian values" was the most commented-on selling point I heard here.
Romney scoffs that he is not running for "pastor in chief," but it is no coincidence that TrustHuckabee.com, an outside group mobilizing caucusgoers, asks supporters in its online form, "What church do you go to?" Without Romney-level money to build an infrastructure, Huckabee may be able to rely on a word-of-mouth get-out-the-vote strategy.
Huckabee hasn't sealed the deal with all these voters. Some wonder whether he will end up like Pat Robertson, who finished second here in 1988 and then fizzled. Others have misgivings about whether he's prepared to be commander in chief.
Evangelical leaders worry that the Huckabee effect could be to boost their least favored candidate, Rudy Giuliani. "He's the one candidate who would be a disaster for our movement," says Iowa Christian Alliance President Steve Scheffler.
Activists "understand that a Huckabee win in Iowa . . . plays right into Giuliani's hands," says one Romney campaign strategist. "That's not quite where the rank and file is, so part of our challenge is to communicate that effectively over the next 30 days."
Huckabee has been such a non-factor that "nobody cared enough for a very long time to go define who he was as governor and what he did," the strategist says. Now, the Romney campaign has to assess the risk of going negative on someone who comes off as the ultimate nice guy. But time is short, and even die-hard caucusgoers are about to be distracted by Christmas. The Romney campaign may end up ruing that it didn't do its defining sooner.