Religion is driving the Republican presidential race in Iowa, with Mike Huckabee taking the lead on the strength of overwhelming support from evangelical voters -- and Mitt Romney falling behind over concerns about his Mormon faith.
Huckabee, who jumped into contention in Iowa a month ago, has soared further among his key groups -- weekly churchgoers, abortion opponents, conservatives and, above all, evangelical Protestants, who account for nearly four in 10 likely caucus-goers. They now favor Huckabee over Romney by a 3-1 margin, 57 percent to 19 percent.
Romney, for his part, holds a slight lead among the nearly eight in 10 Iowa Republicans who say his religion doesn't matter in their vote. But the remaining two in 10 say his Mormon religion makes them less likely to support him, and they overwhelmingly favor Huckabee by a large enough margin to put him in front overall.
The contest between these two has sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the GOP field in Iowa, with Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson both down to single-digit support in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, alongside John McCain (who was already there) and the lesser-known Ron Paul. Current third place is truly anyone's guess.
Huckabee, governor of Arkansas and a Baptist minister, has experienced a remarkable surge in Iowa, from 8 percent support in July to 24 percent last month and 35 percent now. Romney, the longtime Iowa front-runner, has been flat across this period; he has 27 percent support among likely caucus-goers.
It's the not-Romney vote that's coalesced behind Huckabee. Beyond evangelicals (but including many of them) he now leads among weekly churchgoers by a 2-1 margin, 51-23 percent; his support in this group rose by 17 points in the last month. He leads by 4-1 among the strongest abortion opponents, with a 22-point gain in support. And among conservatives overall -- a group that accounts for seven in 10 likely caucus-goers in Iowa -- Huckabee now leads Romney by 16 points. Last month they were essentially even.
In another striking result, Huckabee's latest gains, in the past month, have come almost exclusively from women -- and women are among the groups more likely to express objections to Romney's Mormon faith. The Huckabee-Romney race currently is a dead heat among men -- but Huckabee leads by 18 points among women.
DECIDED?– Huckabee has firmer backing overall -- 60 percent of his supporters say they've definitely made up their minds, compared with 49 percent of Romney's -- and he's been wearing well since exploding onto the radar last month. By more than 2-1 (37 percent vs. 15 percent) Iowa Republicans say the more they hear about Huckabee, the more they like him.
The race is certainly not over. Neither Huckabee nor Romney has majority high-level enthusiasm behind his candidacy. Among all likely caucus-goers, 42 percent say they may yet change their minds, and just over two in 10 say there's a good chance of it -- more than enough to keep the eventual outcome, now two weeks off, uncertain.