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?
Today, the one man who can do that is Romney. If Romney wins Iowa, not only would that break Huckabee's momentum, but Romney would likely surge to victory in New Hampshire, five days later, where he leads, and in Michigan, a week after, where his father was governor and Romney is a famous name. Comes then South Carolina. If Mitt is 3-0 going into South Carolina and everyone else is 0 for 3, it is hard to see who beats him there.
If Romney loses Iowa, however, he has to win New Hampshire or he is done. But if Huckabee wins Iowa, he need not win New Hampshire for he has already moved into the lead in South Carolina.
The question for the other Republicans is the same: Where do you win? And if you don't win early, do you have the resources to go on?
John McCain, the candidate of the Union-Leader, either wins New Hampshire or goes home. For he is going to be humiliated in Iowa if he does not drop out. And if he cannot win the Granite State, his strongest in 2000, how does he raise the money to carry on, and where does he win?
Fred Thompson appears to have little chance to win any of the first three. He is banking on holding on until South Carolina, despite a probable three straight losses before then and no publicity to rival what Huckabee and Romney are getting right now. Fred may not make it to South Carolina.
Which brings us to Rudy, the front-runner. His hope: That Huckabee wins Iowa, McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney wins Michigan, and Thompson or McCain wins South Carolina. Then, after four defeats, he comes roaring back in Florida, grabs the headlines going into Feb. 5, when half the primaries are held, and marches forward to the nomination.
Whoever thought up this strategy is the kind of guy who plays Russian roulette with four bullets in the chamber. The peril of the Rudy strategy is if a Romney, a Huckabee or a McCain wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina and catches a fire no attack ad can put out. Already, Rudy's national lead is vanishing. How he maintains it through December and four straight January losses is, as they say, problematic.