By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 31, 2007
DES MOINES, Dec. 30 -- Republican rivals Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney took their battle over Christian voters to the pews as both attended services while their campaigns spanned Iowa in a final Sunday pitch to evangelicals.
With Christian conservatives expected to make up as much as 40 percent of Republican caucusgoers, Romney dispatched surrogates to meet with pastors in the far corners of Iowa, hoping to blunt Huckabee's momentum among evangelicals. On Friday, three national religious leaders backing Huckabee -- Tim LaHaye, Michael Farris and Rick Scarborough -- convened a conference call with Iowa pastors to urge them to use Sunday's services to drive up participation by Christian voters, who polls suggest favor the former Arkansas governor by comfortable margins.
In dozens of interviews at churches before and after Sunday services, many voters said they intend to caucus for Huckabee on Thursday, citing what they said is the former Baptist minister's strong commitment to his faith and a candor that they said is rare among politicians. Others said that they intend to support Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, or that they are undecided, reflecting the up-for-grabs nature of the religious-conservative vote this year.
"His Christian principles line up with what I believe the Bible has to say about political and moral issues," Dan Hiscox, 76, said of Huckabee after attending services at the First Assembly of God in Des Moines. Of Romney, he said: "Unfortunately, people think that whoever's got the most marbles wins, and he's got the most. . . . But I don't think that's necessarily going to be true here in Iowa."
Fellow worshiper Esther Norris, 73, a Romney supporter, called him a "family man" and said she agrees with his hard-line stance on immigration. "Some people are bothered by the fact that he's a Mormon," Norris said. "But . . . he's got the same moral values I do. I'm a family person."
The candidates continued attacking one another Sunday. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Huckabee accused Romney of lying about Huckabee's record. Adviser Ed Rollins said Huckabee would spend part of the day taping a television ad, to run Monday, aimed at making sure that "the voters know the facts about the governor's record and Governor Romney's record."
On NBC, Huckabee also made no apologies for a decade-old speech he made to the Southern Baptist Convention, during which he urged the audience to "take this nation back for Christ." Responding to a question by host Tim Russert, Huckabee said, "Certainly that would be appropriate to be said to a gathering of Southern Baptists."
Later in the afternoon, Huckabee's campaign compared Romney to "Seinfeld" character George Costanza -- who they quoted as saying, "Just remember, it's not a lie if you believe it" -- and said Romney "parsed his words -- like former president Bill Clinton."
A spokesman for Romney, who privately attended Mormon services in Burlington, on Iowa's eastern border, issued a statement saying Huckabee exhibited "testiness and irritability" when he was questioned by Russert. "Mike Huckabee's lashing out with personal attacks against Governor Romney that have no merit or substance is quite unfortunate. Campaigns should be about the issues," the statement said.
In television ads airing statewide, Romney accuses Huckabee of pardoning 1,033 criminals, including 12 murderers; of raising taxes; and of being soft on illegal immigration. One Romney mailing critical of Huckabee uses an image of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card from the board game Monopoly.
There was fresh evidence that Romney's ads are working: One poll showed him again in the lead here and gaining on Huckabee among religious voters. Voters at churches here said that they had heard some of Romney's critiques and that the criticism made them question Huckabee.
Alice Hart, a retiree in Burlington and a longtime church member, said she received calls from Romney's campaign bashing Huckabee "that I don't really like," but she acknowledged that they had raised questions for her, particularly on Huckabee's record of issuing pardons for convicted felons in Arkansas.
As was the case at the First Assembly of God, Huckabee was the most popular choice among those who attended services at Des Moines' Cornerstone Family Church, where Huckabee slipped in to worship without any public notice from his campaign. As he left, he told reporters that the church reminded him of the one he attends regularly in Arkansas.
"I believe the way the world is right now, it's going to take more than the wisdom of man," said Kenny Linhart, 34, an international evangelical missionary, after worshiping at Cornerstone. "The world is a mess. We need somebody willing to say, 'God, what should I do?' "
Linhart said he believes that Huckabee is that person, but not because of any guidance he received from Pastor Dan Berry, a charismatic leader of the 15-year-old church who has vowed to remain publicly neutral in the presidential contest. "We've got Christians on both sides of the aisle," Berry said after services.
In fact, many of the voters interviewed Sunday said they were not influenced heavily by the views of national religious leaders or their local pastors.
Over the past two months, endorsements by evangelist Pat Robertson of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), and by conservative Catholic Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have done little to raise the candidates' fortunes, and former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) has struggled here despite an initial embrace of his candidacy by national Christian activists. Iowa pastors who backed Huckabee were largely following, rather than leading, their congregations.
On Saturday, the Rev. Morris Hurd, chairman of the Iowa Christian Alliance, endorsed Romney, even though the alliance is formally neutral. Sunday, some of the people at Hurd's 200-member church in eastern Iowa, West Hill United Methodist in Burlington, had read the news, but they were not swayed.
Among 10 members interviewed, there were many undecided voters; some of the Republicans said they are considering Romney, Huckabee or even Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). But when asked whether Hurd's endorsement would shift their views, the opinions were unanimous.
Mike Zaiser, a consultant, said he was leaning toward Romney anyway and emphatically said "no" when asked whether his pastor's backing would solidify his support.
After services at Cornerstone, Ron Heins, 38, an information technology director in Des Moines, said he will caucus for Huckabee because the candidate stands for "family values, he stands for making our government smaller." Heins said he would like the country to rid itself of the separation of church and state. "That is not in the Constitution anywhere," he said. "Our country was founded on Christian principles . . . give me the chance to share my faith."
Staff writer Jose Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.