POLL: Religion Drives Iowa GOP Race, Lifting Huckabee Into the Lead

Trailing Huckabee must be a bitter pill for Romney, given the fact that the vast majority of likely caucus-goers -- 61 percent -- continue to say it's Romney who's campaigned hardest in their state. (He's racked up more than 160 campaign events in Iowa this year vs. just over 100 by Huckabee.) And indeed Romney retains the advantage in some groups -- notably seniors, moderates, nonevangelical Protestants, those who favor legal abortion and, as noted, those who say his religion makes no difference in their choice.

ATTRIBUTES – Beyond the role of religion, Huckabee's advantage seems to relate more to his personal attributes than to specific issues. Of six individual issues tested in this poll, he leads in trust to handle just one, "social issues such as abortion and gay civil unions." Of seven personal attributes, he leads on three: empathy, best representing his party's "core values" and honesty and trustworthiness.

Huckabee has gained on these and others, with 7- to 12-point advances. Giuliani has suffered the most, losing 13 points on electability, 11 points as the "strongest leader" and a scant 5 points on having the best experience.

Romney leads Huckabee by a close 5 points as the strongest leader, by 9 points on experience -- and by 11 points as having the best chance to win in November. Those attributes will likely figure in Romney's closing arguments.

ISSUES – Huckabee, as noted, leads in trust to handle social issues such as abortion and gay civil unions. He and Romney are essentially even in trust to handle the Iraq War, taxes, immigration and terrorism (with a slight lead for Giuliani on terrorism and for McCain on Iraq). In trust to handle the economy, Romney holds a 10-point advantage.

Nonetheless, Huckabee has gained on the issues. Generally, where he now runs evenly with Romney he'd trailed just a month ago by anywhere from 5 to 14 points. The biggest gain for Huckabee is in trust to handle immigration, now leading as the most important issue cited by Iowa Republicans.

The issues list cited by likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa is a varied (or perhaps fragmented) one, with nine issues receiving double-digit mentions as one of the two top concerns. Last month immigration and the war in Iraq ranked evenly as top concerns; now immigration has gained and the war's slid back as a concern, as have health care and the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism.

Comparison with top issues among Democratic likely caucus-goers shows the very broad differences between these groups. Democrats have just four top issues -- the Iraq War, health care, the economy and education. Several issues on the Republicans' list (e.g., immigration, terrorism, abortion, taxes, morals and values) barely register on the Democrats'; likewise, the Democrats' top issues get far fewer mentions by Republicans.

RELIGION – The role of religion in the Iowa race -- also reflected in the last ABC/Post national poll -- is worth a further look. On Romney's religion, 36 percent of evangelicals say they're less likely to vote for him because of his Mormonism -- far more than the number of nonevangelical Protestants (7 percent) who say so.

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