Is This Heaven? No, It's Iowa.

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 20, 2007

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa - They call it the Iowa caucuses, but the way these Christian warriors are going after each other, the contest looks more like the Sack of Constantinople.

Ordained Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, the new Republican front-runner in Iowa, spent a chunk of this week arguing that the white cross that appears to hover over his shoulder in his latest campaign ad was not meant to be a subliminal message.

"There was no subtle or subliminal message in it," Huckabee told supporters at a shopping mall here Wednesday night.

Of course not: There's nothing subtle about the candidates' waving of the cross in the presidential contest. The messages of Huckabee and rival Mitt Romney to the voters of Iowa can be summarized, roughly, as "Come, all ye faithful."

"This revealed to us just how far we've slipped in our culture," Huckabee said Wednesday night of the cross kerfuffle. "If I used the name of Jesus Christ in profanity, it would have offended some of you, but because we used it in the context of saying 'Merry Christmas' it's been analyzed by virtually every television program."

Audience members had just enough time after hearing that to make the quick drive over to the Sheraton in West Des Moines, where Romney was hosting what he called "a little Christmas party" for 1,200 people, seated and without eggnog. The Romney fans had to pay for their own beer and wine at a cash bar, but the campaign provided iced cookies in the shape of stars, bells and Christmas trees.

Romney, standing on the stage next to a Christmas tree, told a few heartwarming tales "as we think about the Christmas spirit," particularly the Christmas when he and his children helped a poor family. "My sons found that the most memorable Christmas they'd ever experienced," he said, before informing the crowd that "God doesn't just love the land of Iowa; he loves the people of Iowa."

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that Huckabee is winning the holy war. He's jumped to a lead of 35 percent to 27 percent in Iowa, almost entirely because of his enormous advantage, 57 percent to 19 percent, among evangelicals. "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one," Huckabee said recently of his rise in the polls. "It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people."

The first crusade in this primary season began last month, with a Huckabee ad displaying the words "CHRISTIAN LEADER" in large print as he spoke into the camera. "Faith doesn't just influence me, it really defines me," Huckabee proclaimed.

Romney retaliated in early December, giving a speech about his Mormonism that targeted the evangelical voter. "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Savior of mankind," he preached, further informing the electorate that "freedom requires religion" and proclaiming his allegiance with "any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty."

Huckabee struck again last week, with a quote in the New York Times Magazine asking: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" Romney thought that was "going too far," and Huckabee apologized -- but the blow had landed.

But this week, Huckabee was at it again with a new ad, this one showing him in a red sweater. In the background, a white bookshelf is decorated in Christmas greens, leaving only a white cross that seemed to float over the candidate's right shoulder. He suggested people "pull aside" from political ads and "remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ."

The stress seems to be getting to Romney. More than once in recent days, he's choked up in public while talking about matters such as the Iraq war dead. But he was all smiles Wednesday as he took to the stage in front of signs wishing "Merry Christmas from the Romneys."

He offered some of his standard lines for the religious conservatives ("Culture makes all the difference"; "Most of us believe in God"; "Marriage is between a man and a woman"). The sheer size of Romney's Christmas party must have overwhelmed the hotel's electric capability, for the room went dark as soon as Romney finished his speech. The voltage returned, and the speakers pumped out "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "Ave Maria."

Huckabee eschewed the Christmas-tree symbolism and the carols, but the candidate, speaking in a badly overcrowded meeting room at the mall, made up for it with a more overtly religious appeal. "Here's a guy who fears God," said the man introducing Huckabee.

The former Arkansas governor got down to business. "I know it's probably very controversial, but may I just say to you, Merry Christmas," he said, producing a defiant cheer. He told the tightly packed crowd of 200 that supporters "tell me they're praying for me," that people believe in "the message that faith matters," and that he has "a record of fighting for human life from conception."

When a questioner confessed that his wife is a "lifelong Democrat," Huckabee quipped: "We'll pray for her." And after the questions, Huckabee raised the subject of his Christmas ad. "It is kind of sad that people are almost shocked when somebody would just look out at America and say, 'Take time with your family and friends, and Merry Christmas.' So I just want to say, take time with your family and friends, and Merry Christmas."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company