Heilemann: Could Evangelicals Deliver an Ironic Ron Paul Victory in Iowa?

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Behold Newt.Photo: Scott Olson/2011 Getty Images

An enthusiastic swarm of Evangelical voters filled the Hoyt Sherman Place Theater on Wednesday night for the premiere of a new anti-abortion documentary narrated by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Built in 1877, the theater is gilded and gorgeous, with 1252 seats, precious few of which were empty when the proceedings began with brief speeches by four of the six Republican presidential candidates actively competing in Iowa: Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. For each member of this quartet, winning as many hearts and minds on the Christian right is crucial, since that segment of the electorate will comprise (if history holds) as much as 40 percent of the total on caucus night — and since almost no one else in Iowa appears to paying much attention to at least three of them. But it was one of the men who wasn't there — Ron Paul, to be precise — who may have the most gain from the dynamics on the Christian right that were vividly on display.

Impolitic has attended his share of pro-life events in Iowa over the years, and relatively speaking, this one was pleasant enough, especially in that it was free of the overt, photos-of-ripped-up-fetuses gruesomeness that some such affairs feature. The cheerful tenor of the evening owed much to its host, Parson Huck, who is, whatever you think of his politics, a notably non-angry guy — and also one with some serious Iowa mojo, having won the caucuses in 2008 and being an Evangelical favorite.

Those qualities have put Huckabee in the position to play kingmaker here this time around, but last night he told ABC News that he would not bestow an endorsement on anyone before the caucuses, and perhaps not until after the GOP nomination fight is over. A model of evenhandedness, right? Well, not quite. Speaking just before the screening began, Huckabee pointed out that four (and only four) candidates were in the house — by implication highlighting the absences of Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. And while Huck offered a nominal pass to those two, saying that he understood all about scheduling conflicts, he then noted tartly, "I do want [the audience] to take note that there were four candidates who cleared their schedules and made this a priority event."

That those candidates used their time onstage trying to outdo each other in their devoutness toward and ardency about the anti-abortion cause was no surprise. Santorum, dressed in a gray sweater-vest, spoke longest, best, and most humorously (if making fun of Barbara Boxer is your cup of tea), detailing his time in "the foxhole on the front line" of past pro-life battles in Congress. Gingrich was more professorial and prescriptive, laying out various pro-life policies he would pursue from his first day in office as president, including the enactment of legislation — as opposed to a far-more-difficult-to-pass constitutional amendment — that declared life as beginning at conception, and the immediate defunding of the dreaded Planned Parenthood. Perry bragged about having already done the latter as governor of Texas, and pledged to seek the repeal of lifetime appointments for judges who "legislate their" — presumably pro-choice — "beliefs from the bench."

But it was Michelle Bachmann who, speaking first, preemptively trumped them all.  After wishing everyone a Merry Christmas — no wishy-washy, secular-humanist, "happy holidays" bullshit for this lady — she boasted of her deep personal connection both to the cause at hand, and, seemingly, to the man upstairs: "I will be the first president of the United States who has willingly participated with the Lord our God Almighty in bringing forth human life." Parse that at your peril, people.

What was most interesting about all this was the reaction from the crowd: Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann (in descending order) got the warmest reactions, while Gingrich summoned applause that was far less lusty, indeed almost perfunctory. Now, it's important to note that polling so far has shown the former speaker holding his own with the Evangelical vote, attracting roughly the same proportion of it as his share overall. But there are plenty of savvy Iowa Republicans who think that this may be a passing phenomenon — that the unease of many born-again voters with Gingrich's serial infidelities and multiple marriages will, in the end, cause them to drift away toward other candidates by the time caucus night arrives.

If that happens, the benefits will accrue to Bachmann, Perry, and/or Santorum, to be sure, all of whom seem to be edging upward (if only slightly) at this moment. But assuming that the Evangelical vote remains splintered among them, it is Paul who would be helped most of all — since that would drain support from Gingrich, do nothing to help Romney (whose hard ceiling is presumed to be somewhere south of the 25 percent he amassed in 2008), and do nothing to hurt Paul, whose combination of money, organization, and die-hard support is causing many of those same Iowa sharpies to start calling him (quietly) the favorite to win the caucuses.

That outcome would be hella ironic, given the distaste that many Evangelicals have for Paul, whose states-rights absolutism causes him to argue that the federal government has no authority to ban abortions (and whose positions on other issues, such as legalizing drugs, are anathema to cultural conservatives more broadly defined). But irony, like strategic voting, is a concept without much traction among Iowa's God-squadders, who, after all, delivered a strong second-place showing to Pat Robertson in 1988 and third to — wait for it — Alan Keyes in 2000.

No doubt doing so made hard-line Evangelicals feel good and righteous on those occasions, just as splitting their votes among Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum will make them feel this time. But if in fact it enables a victory by Paul, whose chances of actually being the Republican nominee are vanishingly close to nil, its effect on the future relevance of the caucuses could be enormous — and by no means positive.