Four weeks before New Hampshire and three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican race has become a proxy religious war.
On one side is a Baptist preacher who called homosexuality "an aberrant, unnatural and sinful lifestyle" that "can pose a dangerous public health risk," urged the isolation of AIDS sufferers, and declared in 1998 that we must "answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ."
On the other is a devout Mormon whose finest hour was last week's televised address in which he refused to back away from any precept of his faith but affirmed: "Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."
Yet, the Baptist preacher has implied that Mormonism may be a cult and is running as the Christian conservative, i.e., God's, candidate.
This is not the wonkish stuff of which so much politics is now made. This is high-voltage, and faith and morality are likely to be major issues in political debate in the weeks between now and the first engagements of 2008.
The Baptist preacher, ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee, has taken a sudden and strong lead in Iowa, with ex-Gov. Mitt Romney the only man who can stop him there. And what Huckabee has said about the homosexual lifestyle is less likely to hurt him with caucus-goers than to solidify his support as a godly man. Moreover, he is surging nationally, as the former front-runners -- McCain, Rudy and Thompson -- slowly fade.
Indeed, with the Mitt-Mike religious war on the Republican side and the Bill-and-Hillary vs. Obama-Oprah celebrity battle on the Democratic side, it is hard to see how other candidates can attract the media before Christmas, New Year's and the bowl games. Then, Iowa and New Hampshire are suddenly upon us. How, for example, does John Edwards attract attention, let alone Biden, Dodd, Richardson and Kucinich?
The folly of Rudy, McCain and Thompson dissing the Iowans by taking a walk on the straw poll in August is apparent. While Romney won comfortably, Huckabee was the real winner. By running a surprising and strong second, he drove his rival for the Christian vote, Sam Brownback, out of the race and became a favorite of the national media. Given the opening and opportunity, he did the rest himself.
Using moral and social issues that appeal to the Christian right, and an economic populism that appeals to working folks left out of the market run-up and left behind, Huckabee has run a fine race and could break away, as may be seen by the hailstorm he is undergoing. As he says, no hunter shoots at a dead animal.
The questions now are whether Huckabee has peaked, whether he can be stopped, and, if so, who stops him?