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No Holy War in the Heartland

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- As pundits try to explain a couple of happenings in Iowa -- Mike Huckabee's surge in popularity and a drop in support for Mitt Romney -- some are force-feeding us a simple explanation: It's a God thing.

If you watch the Sunday morning talk shows or read the weekly newsmagazines, there is a religious war erupting on the road to Des Moines.

Here's the narrative: Romney is stumbling in Iowa because the former governor of Massachusetts is a Mormon and evangelical Christians -- who make up more than a third of the state's GOP voters -- won't support a Mormon for president. Meanwhile, Huckabee is thriving because the former Arkansas governor is also a Baptist minister whose views on issues are in line with those of social conservatives.

A Newsweek poll of Republicans likely to participate in the Iowa caucuses finds Huckabee out in front with the support of 39 percent, while 17 percent favor Romney.

Note the headline in a Newsweek cover story about Huckabee's strong showing in Iowa: "Holy Huckabee!" On the same cover are references to other stories in the magazine such as "God and the GOP" and "the Mormon-Evangelical Divide." The lead story, written by editor Jon Meacham, is titled "A New American Holy War." Even a profile of the Iowa front-runner's spouse, Janet Huckabee, is dubbed "Wife of the Preacher Man."

Conflict helps sell magazines. But Newsweek went overboard in framing the Huckabee-Romney contest as an exercise in religious strife.

There are at least three problems with this narrative -- it's dangerous, insulting and likely untrue. Dangerous because it provides yet another way to divide Americans -- who have already been split into warring camps based on race, class and education. Insulting because it paints a large swath of the Iowa electorate as religious bigots. And likely untrue because Newsweek's own polling data suggest that Iowans are more open-minded than national political commentators give them credit for being.

Asked if it would be a good thing to have an ordained minister elected president, 26 percent of Iowans said yes and 3 percent said no, but -- significantly -- 67 percent said it wouldn't matter. When asked if they consider people of the Mormon faith to be Christian, 57 percent said yes and 27 percent said no. And when asked if they were more or less likely to vote for Romney because he is a Mormon, 16 percent said "less likely," 1 percent said "more likely" but -- again, significantly -- 83 percent said it made no difference.

Granted, the fact that roughly one in six likely GOP caucus-goers admits that they're less likely to vote for a Mormon is troubling. And, in a close race, that could have an impact. But we can take comfort in the fact that more than five times as many voters say that they reject such bigotry and are willing to judge candidates without regard to religion.

So if the Huckabee-Romney battle royal isn't about religion, then what is it about? It could be that Huckabee seems more likable and sincere to many Iowa voters while Romney continues to be plagued by his flip-flops on thorny issues such as immigration and abortion -- issues where true believers leave little room for equivocation.

There are times when Romney seems to be pure equivocation. Iowans may not be all that eager to choose someone who reminds them of another Massachusetts flip-flopper rejected for president in 2004.

The Des Moines Register asked likely Republican voters who are not supporting Romney to give a reason why. More than half -- 51 percent -- said it was because he had changed his views on important issues.

Romney insists that his views have evolved and that this is a sign of maturity. But even that argument could be a con job. Many voters seem worried that Romney really doesn't believe what he's saying on the stump and that he's just telling them what they want to hear as opposed to what he really thinks.

So, forget the media narrative and all this talk of a holy war in the heartland. It's possible that Romney's trouble in Iowa has little to do with what he believes and more to do with the fact that many Republicans don't think he believes in anything.

ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

Copyright 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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