Mike Huckabee bounded onto the stage of the Hoyt Sherman Theatre, an 1877 Des Moines landmark built by the brother of a famous Civil War hero, much like an adopted son returning home from battle – in this case, the war on abortion.
The entrance of the former Arkansas governor, and winner of the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, followed speeches by four of this year’s candidates for the party’s presidential nomination. But it was Mr. Huckabee who hogged all the love.
Now a Fox News host, he was in Des Moines this week for the premiere of the new anti-abortion documentary he narrates. And Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum all showed up, hoping some of Mr. Huckabee’s sway with Iowa’s politically powerful social conservatives might rub off on them.
He obliged them, sort of.
“There were four candidates who cleared their schedules and made this a priority event,” Mr. Huckabee noted. “That ought to be very important to you.”
It also ought to help Mr. Gingrich, who has struggled to live down his past with this audience.
Indeed, it is hard to see how a group dominated by evangelical Christians could line up behind a serial adulterer and born-again Catholic sanctioned for ethics violations and accused of influence peddling.
But the Lord, as they say, works in mysterious ways.
Iowa’s religious right has the power to grant Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy an afterlife come the Jan. 3 caucuses, or snuff it out in the cold winter night. Until then, he is in political purgatory.
“If allowing God to forgive him is what we need to do, I’m not bound to judgment,” offered retiree Barbara Smalley, 75, as she awaited Mr. Gingrich’s speech. “If I was carving out a candidate, I would not choose his past. But when I hear him debate, he comes through stronger and as someone who can make decisions on his feet.”
Sean Smith, a 49-year-old warehouse supervisor, was not so sure.
“Deeds, not words,” explained Mr. Smith, who has yet to choose a candidate. “They’ve all held political office. What did they do? Did they stand up for the issues I’m concerned with?”
The thrice-married Mr. Gingrich has been contrite about his past, which is a huge concession considering his colossal ego. But even if he ekes out a victory in Iowa, the 68-year-old grandfather (as he has taken to referring to himself) could emerge bruised from the caucuses. A loss to libertarian hero and Iowa insurgent Ron Paul would be a fatal blow.
Yet, both of those scenarios appear increasingly likely.
The Iowa caucuses are a strange, but occasionally critical, feature of American democracy. There is no logical reason why a tiny state far from the country’s power centres retains such disproportional influence in choosing presidential candidates. It just does.
Often, it’s not so much who wins in Iowa, as who loses here. A failure to live up to expectations in the Hawkeye State can doom a candidacy.
Mitt Romney discovered that in 2008. Despite spending $10-million here, social conservatives united behind Mr. Huckabee. It sapped Mr. Romney’s momentum going into the New Hampshire primary, aiding the eventual victory of John McCain.
This year, Mr. Romney – who skipped the Huckabee event to attend a fund-raiser on Wall Street – has played down his chances of winning the caucuses, putting the onus on Mr. Gingrich to live up to his surging poll numbers.
The former House of Representatives speaker is clearly feeling the pressure, spending his recent days seeking absolution from the state’s social conservatives.
At Wednesday’s documentary screening, Mr. Gingrich vowed to reinstate Ronald Reagan’s so-called Mexico City Policy, prohibiting the U.S. government from providing aid to maternal health groups that provide abortion counselling abroad.
Mr. Gingrich also promised to press Congress to “define personhood as beginning at conception, with a clause stopping the courts from blocking it.” The move would effectively supersede the 1973 Supreme Court ruling establishing abortion rights.
In quintessential Gingrich-speak, he charged: “We’re engaged in a cultural struggle with a secular elite that believes life is random and has no moral meaning.”
A day earlier, Mr. Gingrich endorsed the so-called marriage pledge promulgated by Iowa’s Family Leader, a political kingmaker in the state. Though he stopped short of signing the pledge, Mr. Gingrich vowed in a letter to “uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse.”
The problem Mr.Gingrich faces is that Ms. Bachmann, Mr. Perry and Mr. Santorum all need to exceed expectations in Iowa to breathe life into their withering candidacies. They have thus made Mr. Gingrich their main target as they seek to rally social conservatives in the state.
As speaker, Mr.Gingrich “had an opportunity to defund Planned Parenthood, and he chose not to take it,” Ms. Bachmann charged during the final pre-caucuses debate in Sioux City on Thursday. “This is a seminal issue. It’s something we can’t get wrong.”
It baffles Sam Pritchard that social conservatives continue to wield so much influence in Republican politics in Iowa, especially when the economy is likely to be the defining issue of the 2012 presidential campaign.
“If people don’t have jobs, we shouldn’t be worrying about who can marry whom,” the 20-year-old student senator at nearby Drake University quipped.
A supporter of Mr. Romney, the ex-Massachusetts governor, Mr. Pritchard worries that no other GOP candidate appeals enough to independent voters to beat President Barack Obama next November.
“Romney might be the one who’s faking [his social conservatism]the most to win the nomination,” Mr. Pritchard conceded. “But if he won the nomination, you would see him easily drift to the centre to get those moderate voters.”
Ironically, the social conservatives who so despise him might be Mr. Romney’s greatest allies.
If they split their support in Iowa among his rivals on Jan. 3, instead of coalescing around Mr. Gingrich, the ex-speaker may not have to worry about upholding any political pledges, marriage or otherwise. His candidacy could be over.