Evangelical Power Revives

By: Wall Street Journal

So much for the idea that evangelical Christians are a dispirited and declining force in the Republican party.

Last night they showed up in force — in stunning force, actually — in Iowa’s caucuses. They were the power that made a winner of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. And they now pose a challenge for Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain — for every other serious contender, in other words.

Some six in 10 Republican caucus-goers described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, entrance polls showed. Almost half of them voted for Mr. Huckabee. Just two in 10 voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Romney. In a very real sense, evangelical voters, as much as Mr. Huckabee, won Iowa’s caucuses on the Republican side.

Evangelicals probably have had an outsize impact in Iowa. It is a state with a strong streak of Christian conservative activism, and support from such a committed group matters more in a caucus state, where turnout is lower and the impact of those who are organized and resolved to turn out on a subfreezing night is greater than in states with primary elections.

Still, the Iowa results suggest that evangelicals, and Christian conservatives more broadly, retain the same kind of potency they have held for the past two decades in Republican politics. “Values voters spoke loudly tonight in Iowa through Gov. Huckabee’s candidacy,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative Republican activist who is neutral in the race.

The question is whether those “values voters” will be available to other candidates as the primary calendar now unfolds.

The answer for now is yes. Iowa isn’t the entire country, the evangelical movement’s priorities are changing, and evangelicals and Christian conservatives more broadly already have shown that they are hardly moving in lock step this year. But the opportunity for other candidates to tap into their power may be limited. The longer Mr. Huckabee looks like a legitimate candidate, the greater his opportunity to lock up the power of evangelicals.

At a minimum, the Iowa results change the conventional wisdom about the power of Christian conservatives in 2008. With no obvious Christian conservative darling among the early leading candidates, the predictions of their demise as a power were widely disseminated: Conservative Christians were too dispirited to get engaged, they might sit on their hands, they might even look for a third-party candidate of their own.

The movement’s old leadership, which looked as tired and confused as the conventional wisdom suggested, splintered. Pat Robertson stunned some in the movement by endorsing Mr. Giuliani, despite his three marriages and support for abortion rights. Paul Weyrich and Bob Jones III, both leaders among Christian conservatives, endorsed Mr. Romney, a Mormon. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Christian conservative favorite, endorsed Sen. McCain after his own candidacy flamed out.

And when former Sen. Fred Thompson entered the race, much of the punditry world figured he would be the man to consolidate conservative Christian support.

But what happened in Iowa was that the foot soldiers moved out on their own, without regard to where their leaders were heading. They singled out Mr. Huckabee, and turned him from afterthought to front-runner.

And in so doing, they have changed the character of the Republican contest from here on out. But the point is that the conservative Christian vote is important, not that it is locked up.

The Christian conservative vote is evolving. No longer is it fixated on two issues — abortion and gay rights. Younger evangelicals are more inclined to worry about global warming, about poverty. Their willingness to consider support for Mr. Giuliani suggests a deep concern about Islamist extremism and terrorism.

Mr. Huckabee succeeded in Iowa in part because he tapped into this new and broader evangelical thinking. “He’s more in line with where I think a lot of the more conservative evangelicals are, which is that they care about a lot more than a few issues,” says Mara Vanderslice, a Democratic religious activist who has closely followed evangelical thinking.

There are some in the movement who aren’t entirely thrilled with the Huckabee candidacy. Pete Wehner, a former Bush aide and Christian activist, wrote in the Washington Post just a few days ago that Mr. Huckabee “is edging close” to being too crass in using his religious beliefs in pursuit of votes in recent weeks.

The task now — for Messrs. McCain, Giuliani and Romney — is to tap into the power of Christian conservatism, and soon. Last night, the National Association of Evangelicals Web site featured a summary of a recent survey it did of the group’s top leaders, which praised Mr. Huckabee but added: “There is no groundswell support for any Republican or Democratic candidate. Huckabee is a clear first choice but there is concern that he is too far behind in the polls to catch up. If he does well in the Iowa caucuses or early primaries then evangelicals may suddenly rally to his support.”

He now has done well, fabulously well, in Iowa. The race for that evangelical support is now under way in full force.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:

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