Bible-thumpers still a political force

Iowa's religious conservatives, a powerful force in Republican presidential politics for two decades, could be kingmakers again in 2008 — but it is unclear which candidate will win their support.

Like many social conservatives around the United States, where religion plays a major role in politics, Christian activists in Iowa have doubts about the top Republican presidential contenders and have yet to rally around a candidate.

But the crucial role played by Iowa, the state that kicks off the White House race with the first nominating contest scheduled for January 2008, makes the state's religious conservatives particularly influential.

While some analysts claim the movement's power has peaked nationally, grass-roots Christian activists still hold plenty of clout in Iowa.

"No Republican candidate can win Iowa without that base in his back pocket," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance.

Exit polls showed nearly one-third of all Iowa voters in the November 2004 presidential election identified themselves as white religious conservatives. The percentage of Republican caucus-goers who are religious conservatives likely will be much higher.

"They are still a significant factor in the party and they will play a prominent role in the caucuses, which rely heavily on mobilization and identifying constituencies you can turn out," said political analyst Peverill Squire of the University of Iowa.

SHOCK WAVES

Iowa's religious conservatives sent shock waves through U.S. politics in 1988 by helping religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, place second in the state's lead-off Republican contest.

Since then, they have moved into party leadership positions and become immersed in Iowa Republican politics.

"The Christian conservatives in Iowa have been part of the process for 20 years, we're ingrained in state politics. We're part of the Republican mainstream," said Ed Failor Jr., executive vice president of Iowans for Tax Relief.

National polls show former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani leading the Republican field over Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, but recent Iowa polls give Romney an edge in the state.

Conservatives have doubts about all three, questioning Giuliani's support for abortion rights and gay rights, McCain's 2000 criticism of Robertson and Romney's Mormon religion and recent switch to opposing abortion rights.

"There is a strong perception among social conservatives that none of the top three make them very comfortable," said Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center. He supports Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.

While Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have more consistent conservative records, they face questions about their ability to win a general election.

Conservative former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who is entering the race late, could prove appealing but few Iowans know much about him.

Hurley said conservatives might coalesce around a candidate after the Iowa straw poll in August, a major event that draws tens of thousands and helps narrow the field.

Romney also could pick up steam if he convinces conservatives his recent policy conversions are genuine and not a matter of political convenience. Keith Hunter, an Iowa Christian alliance board member and Romney supporter, said he accepted his explanation.

"We all come from somewhere. I had my own conversion in the early 1980s," Hunter said. "The pro-life movement is dedicated to winning over hearts and minds — why should we be so skeptical when we win some?"

Scheffler said religious conservatives would rather not vote in the November 2008 election than cast a ballot for a Republican candidate who did not share their values.

"They might not show up or they might not pull that lever for president," he said. "They aren't going to blindly vote for somebody just because they have Republican behind their name."