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The Social Conservative Primary

Why Iowa matters.

11:00 PM, Dec 21, 2007 • By JEFFREY BELL
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All three strategies have met their share of pitfalls. Thompson has done well in endorsements, but sometimes seems to go out of his way to show his lack of interest in the social conservative agenda. He is the only candidate of the three to oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment, backed also by President Bush and designed to keep federal and state judges from imposing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. And asked by Tim Russert on Meet the Press if he would campaign on the Republicans' pro-life platform, his answer was a flat "No."

Huckabee's vulnerability has been not on social issues but on other issues. He called fairly often for higher taxes in his Arkansas years and castigated the Bush administration on Iraq for "arrogance" and a "bunker mentality" in a recent Foreign Affairs article that seemed not just surprisingly dovish but jarringly out of date given the stunning success (and near-universal Republican approval) enjoyed by Gen. David Petraeus.

Romney's Iowa campaign was initially staggered but avoided a knockdown in its first real crisis, the Huckabee surge to first place in Iowa based on identity politics. As a Mormon, the last thing Romney needs is an identity-driven debate with a Southern Baptist seeking evangelical votes. Romney's Texas A&M speech calling for tolerance was well received, particularly by social conservatives who agreed with his attack on secularism. One of the few jarring elements in the speech, his commitment to Jesus Christ as son of God and savior of mankind, was undoubtedly an indirect but pointed response to the not-too-subtle Christian identity politics of Huckabee.

Even in his television commercials attacking Huckabee on immigration and crime, Romney carefully reminds voters of the centrality of his issue strategy in the first part of the ads when he states his agreement with Huckabee on social issues like life and marriage.

In preparation for the transition from Iowa to New Hampshire, some press reports suggest Romney will soon phase out his emphasis on social issues and begin talking about his successes in business consulting and in the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Two points leap out of the pages of the New York Times in which this speculation recently appeared. Romney, the devout Mormon accused of opportunistic ideological flip-flops, seems surprisingly determined to return thematically to a discussion of the past, which invites further arguments about his own ideological and religious identity. One of the best things about an issue strategy, social or otherwise, is that it can turn voters' attention to a debate about the future, rather than the immediate past of Bush unpopularity, Republican congressional incompetence, as well as Romney's biggest vulnerabilities in, say, South Carolina: Mormonism and issue evolution.

Alone of all the Republican candidates, Romney has recognized the centrality Iowa has achieved in his party's presidential politics. But treating it as an isolated problem to overcome before moving on to New Hampshire, rather than as a proxy for the socially conservative center of gravity of the party as a whole, is to mistake effects for causes. This is underlined by the simple fact that Huckabee's Iowa surge coincided with a Huckabee surge all over the country, but especially in the South, and more than anywhere else in the archetypal Republican barometer of the modern era, South Carolina.

Winning Iowa is important, as both Romney and Huckabee know. But riveting as the horse race will be on January 3, the second most important thing is what lessons the winner and his top pursuer take from Iowa into New Hampshire and the rest of the states that so quickly follow.

Jeffrey Bell, a Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is writing Social Conservatism: the Movement that Polarized American Politics, to be published in 2009 by Encounter Books.