Faith, Values Come to the Fore in Iowa as Holidays Near

Faith, Values Come to the Fore in Iowa as Holidays Near

By Erin McPike - December 19, 2011

CHARLES CITY, Iowa -- Until recently, most of the Republican presidential campaign has been prosecuted over the economy and the degree to which various candidates promised to flatten the tax code. Herman Cain's "9-9-9" plan stole the show in early fall, right after an argument between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney about how to make Social Security solvent wound down.

Those seem like after-thoughts now. Most of the GOP field barnstormed Iowa this weekend, attending church services and talking about their faith. Newt Gingrich, however, returned to Washington for an appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation." And Mitt Romney flew out of Iowa after a single event Friday morning to campaign in South Carolina, raise more campaign cash and sit for his first national interview on a Sunday morning show in nearly two years.

The absence of the two front-runners was striking, and it underscores the extent to which both camps are downplaying expectations here (even though Gingrich holds a slight lead over Ron Paul) and that their thinking reaches well beyond Iowa's quirky caucuses. It’s also a testament to how far the other candidates must go to win the Hawkeye State’s GOP electorate, which is dominated by religious social conservatives.

Four years ago, Mike Huckabee was deemed not conservative enough by an array of right-wing activists, particularly on economic matters, but by identifying closely with evangelical Christians, he was able to produce a nine-point victory over Romney here. Romney, a Mormon, fielded questions everywhere he campaigned about how he would handle attacks on his religion, which were being lobbed his way obliquely. In part as a consequence, Jon Huntsman, a fellow Mormon, is not even competing here in this cycle.

And that may explain why most of the candidates are rushing to talk about their faith, especially with the approach of the holidays -- and voting. Surveys of the Iowa GOP electorate show Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney clustered at the top of the pack, each with roughly a fifth of respondents supporting them. But a recent CBS/New York Times poll found that at least 60 percent of those likely to vote in the caucuses next month could still change their minds.

Even Gingrich and Paul are slipping religion into their messages, albeit by different tacks than those taken by their competitors.

On “Face the Nation” Sunday, Gingrich railed against judicial activism. “The lawyer class defines America,” he complained. “We've had rulings that outlawed school prayer; we've had rulings that outlawed the cross; we've had rulings the outlawed the Ten Commandments; we've had a steady secular drive to radicalize this country away from all of its core beliefs. I mean what got me into this was the 9th Circuit saying that ‘one nation under God’ is unconstitutional.”

A senior Gingrich adviser told RCP that the campaign is getting “real traction” on the issue, which, “of course, is why we’re hammering away at it.”

Ron Paul issued a statement Sunday afternoon about a North Carolina case in which the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Catholic school, Belmont Abbey College, to keep it from being forced to provide contraceptives and the morning-after pill as part of a group health-care plan.

“Unlike other candidates,” the statement read, “I have fought against the federal promotion, funding, and mandating of contraceptives and abortion my entire political career. As president, I will use my constitutional authority to stop federal bureaucrats from forcing any institution to violate their sacred moral and religious beliefs by making them provide coverage for contraceptives in their health insurance plan."

Other candidates tried to express their commitment to religion in more personal ways.

Michele Bachmann doled out “Merry Christmases” like candy at a parade during her 13-stop rounds on Saturday. Later, at the Abundant Life Ministries Church in Jefferson, she told her audience that when she grew up in Iowa, “my parents took me to church every Sunday."

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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