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

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.

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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.

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.

Other pro-Huckabee groups -- weekly churchgoers, abortion opponents and conservatives overall -- are also more apt than their counterparts to say they're less likely to support a Mormon. So, as noted, are women -- 27 percent less likely, compared with 15 percent of men. National data among Republican and Republican-leaning men and women are almost identical. One reason: Women are about 10 points more likely to be evangelicals.

Looking at the Iowa numbers another way, 41 percent of Huckabee's supporters say they're less likely to support Romney because he's a Mormon. A regression equation finds that being an evangelical is the single most dominant predictor of his support.

As in any low-turnout event, who actually shows up on caucus day will be an important element in the outcome. In this survey, 11 percent of Iowans were identified as likely Republican caucus-goers; actual turnout in past years has been about 5 percent. A further challenge for Romney is that evangelicals can be a motivated, high-turnout group.

Concerns about a Mormon candidate are reflected in national data as well; in an ABC/Post poll last week, 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they were less likely to support a Mormon candidate -- down from 30 percent last summer, but essentially matching the current number in Iowa. Again, evangelicals were most apt to say so, and Huckabee's national support among evangelicals has surged, from 13 percent in November to a field-leading 29 percent last week.

Such dynamics are less a factor in New Hampshire, in part because there are far fewer evangelicals there. Evangelical Protestants account for 37 percent of likely caucus-goers in Iowa, and an identical 37 percent of likely Republican primary voters nationally, but just 15 percent in New Hampshire, where Romney has continued to lead.

TONE – Finally, there's a positive note in Iowans' reactions to the campaign. Sixty-six percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say the race has been mostly positive in tone; an additional 29 percent say it's been a mix of positive and negative -- leaving just 3 percent who say it's been mostly a negative campaign. On this, at least, Iowa Democrats feel about the same.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 13-17, 2007, among a random sample of 501 adults likely to vote in the Iowa Republican caucuses. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF with charts and full questionnaire.

Click here for more ABC News polls.