Iowa could redefine GOP's evangelical wing

KEOSAUQUA, Iowa — "Awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from this abyss."

When Sen. Ted Cruz closed his prayerful plea to a crowd of about 150 people here Tuesday night, the "abyss" he had in mind was something larger than the prospect of a Donald Trump victory in Monday's caucuses. But the final days of the battle for Iowa have come to resemble political Armageddon.

In fact, it involves two overlapping struggles.

First is the one for the ideological souls of conservative white evangelical Christians. Are they still motivated, as Cruz hopes, by traditional issues such as abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty? Will solidarity push them toward a candidate who uses evangelical language and comfortably invokes Scripture?

Or has Trump redefined social conservatism by returning to a harder form of backlash politics that shaped the late 1960s and early '70s? Trump draws in evangelicals on the basis of shared anger rather than shared faith.

Both Trump and Cruz are playing identity politics. But a Trump triumph could mark the end of the religious right as we have known it since the Reagan era by splitting this important GOP constituency in half.

Second, there is the larger fight within the Republican Party over Trump himself. A profound fear has gripped many of its elected officials: With apologies for paraphrasing Frank Sinatra's hymn to the "New York values" Cruz has condemned, the worry is that if Trump can make it here, he can make it anywhere.

The anxiety over Trump — among old-line evangelical political leaders, among conservative intellectual elites and among what passes for the party establishment — could turn Cruz into a temporary savior. Many in the party who don't like Cruz at all may still hope he wins here for a very practical reason: Stopping Cruz in later contests could be far easier than derailing a Trump juggernaut.

Many aspects of the new dynamic were on display in this city of about 1,000 near the Missouri border.

An unscheduled speaker at Cruz's rally was Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who is not even a Cruz supporter. In the final hours before the caucuses, Sasse — who combines establishment and Tea Party credentials with a Yale Ph. D. in history — has made stopping Trump a personal cause. He took a page from Trump's own playbook by taking a series of hard shots at the front-runner on Twitter.

Sasse is calling on Iowa Republicans to vote for anyone except Trump. He also spoke Wednesday at an event for Sen. Marco Rubio.

Sasse's central concern, he told me here, is Trump's authoritarian side.

"He's a strongman with a will to power," Sasse said. "Trump has been the only guy on the Republican side of the aisle that regularly campaigns and says things like, 'If I'm elected president, I'll be able to do whatever I want.'" Republicans like himself who are critical of President Obama's use of executive orders, Sasse said, should apply the same standards to Trump.

In the meantime, supporters of socially conservative candidates in the single digits such as Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson are beginning to move to Cruz. Troy Scheuermann, a 43-year-old chiropractor who attended the rally, cited principled pragmatism for his own switch.

"I was in Camp Huckabee until last week," he said. "I decided that if I voted for Huckabee, it's a vote for Donald Trump. It's now a two-man race."

A rallying to Cruz, of course, could weaken Rubio, who is looking for a strong third-place finish here to strengthen him in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary. So Rubio, too, as the Washington Post's Sean Sullivan reported, is now invoking God a great deal, hoping to move at least some of the evangelicals his way.

Trump seems confident he's on a path to win Iowa. His attacks on Cruz have been reinforced by sharp jabs from Rubio, who has reason to hope that if Trump won here, he would dispose of Cruz's candidacy right at the start. But Cruz may yet profit from a form of political providence if horror over the specter of a Trump nomination becomes the dominant emotion between now and Monday.

Iowa has thus come down to this: Who do the state's swing voters fear and loathe more, Trump or Cruz? You can imagine the choice will drive even the most secular Republicans to rounds of intense prayer.

Contact the writer: ejdionne@washpost.com

"He's a strongman with a will to power. Trump has been the only guy on the Republican side of the aisle that regularly campaigns and says things like, 'If I'm elected president, I'll be able to do whatever I want.' "

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

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