Over the last several months, the Republican presidential field has been consumed by the near-collapse of Senator John McCain’s campaign, the question of whether Fred Thompson would enter the race, and whether Rudolph W. Giuliani’s appeal would endure.
But on the ground in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest, a pitched battle has broken out involving two lesser-known candidates who are trading accusations of religious bigotry and hypocrisy. The battle has become the most heated and personal rivalry in the Republican field.
The fight is for second place in the Aug. 11 Iowa Straw poll, a traditional bellwhether that signals the strength of Republican campaigns, and it pits Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, against Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. And it could mean life or death to either of their candidacies.
The current tensions stem from an e-mail message sent to two Brownback supporters by Rev. Tim Rude, the pastor of an evangelical church in Walnut Creek, Iowa. In the message, Mr. Rude, a Huckabee volunteer, compared the religious backgrounds of Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, and Mr. Brownback, who is Roman Catholic.
“I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002,” Mr. Rude wrote. “Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor’s.”
Grasping at straw poll
The message struck some as an attempt to highlight Mr. Brownback’s Catholicism in a state with a large Protestant electorate. After the message found its way into several blogs last week, Mr. Huckabee issued a statement on Wednesday saying that his campaign neither disseminated nor condoned the message. He called Mr. Brownback a “Christian brother” and added, “As believers, we don’t have time to fight each other.”
But the matter did not end there. After the Brownback campaign cried foul, Mr. Huckabee’s campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, a Catholic, said, “It’s time for Sam Brownback to stop whining and start showing some of the Christian character he seems to always find lacking in others.”
He continued, “If Brownback is going to fall to pieces every time a supporter of the Governor says something he doesn’t like, he clearly isn’t tough enough to be President.”
The pitched exchanges reflected the skirmishing for the No. 2 spot in the straw poll, which might seem odd, given that the contest carries only symbolic weight. Neither Mr. Giuliani nor Mr. McCain is contesting the straw poll, and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is expected to win it easily. But a second-place showing is seen as a way for a lower-tier candidate to rise from obscurity.
A 'respectable second or third'
In their quests for the GOP nomination, both Messrs. Huckabee and Brownback have sought to cast themselves as conservative alternatives to the top tier. The senator often sums up his platform as “pro-life, whole life,” while Mr. Huckabee stresses faith’s influence on his decisions.
Neither campaign has managed to take off so far. Fiscal conservatives have criticized Mr. Huckabee for raising taxes in Arkansas, an accusation that he disputes, while Mr. Brownback’s support of comprehensive immigration legislation has been a liability with conservative voters. Still, for each man, the biggest stumbling block could be a perception that he does not have a realistic chance of winning.
That’s where the Ames straw poll comes in. Though nonbinding, it is an important test of organization and support among Republicans. After poor showings in the 1999 event, four contenders dropped out of the race.
“I think some of them see it as either make a good showing or they’ll be forced out of the race,” said Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Christian Alliance. Since Mr. Romney is widely expected to win, a “respectable second or third” could also help other candidates, he said.
Indeed, Mr. Saltsman said the exchange over the e-mail message would probably not have become so heated were it not for the imminent straw poll.
“Obviously there’s more interest and attention, and the stakes are higher,” said John Rankin, a spokesman for Mr. Brownback. But he said the campaign would have pushed back whenever it happened.
Still, when asked if the extra publicity the spat generated for both campaigns was helpful, Mr. Rankin laughed. “I wouldn’t want to answer that,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is focus on Senator Brownback and his ideas.”