The big Republican split


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When Moses parted the Red Sea, he brought his people out of indentured servitude and took a step toward the promised land. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee came to Iowa on Feb. 24, pulling a maneuver akin to the great miracle of Old Testament canon.

Only Huckabee aided in parting the Republican Party.

Leapfrogging between Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, Huckabee’s keynote speech for the Iowa Family Policy Center raised more than a few eyebrows and left Iowa Democrats salivating. The center, an influential Christian organization, announced its backing for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats last month, while vowing that it would sit out of the campaign if the GOP nominates former Gov. Terry Branstad.

For Huckabee to lend his support to a group that encourages its constituents to stay home from the polls if their candidate is not on the ballot is a weighty political gaffe. And the ramifications of such a mistake could affect the GOP both on the state level and the presidential primary come caucus time.

If Branstad ultimately wins the primary, Huckabee’s own chance to effectively caucus in 2012, should he try, will likely be without the backing of Branstad or his loyalists.

And without political compromise, a potentially sure-fire win for the GOP faces vulnerability in the June 8 Republican primary.

Huckabee’s mere presence in Iowa in support of both Vander Plaats and the Family Policy Center set Republican candidates up for an arduous primary battle. More troubling, the presidential hopeful’s presence in Iowa last week is illuminating a schism between predominately fiscal conservatives who support Branstad and social conservatives backing Vander Plaats.

The pugilists are taped up, Vaseline is shining beneath their eyes to skirt off savage haymakers, and the first round is under way. But if Branstad knocks out Vander Plaats come June — and far-righters follow the center’s suggestion to sit the race out — the outcome of this year’s race for governor is nebulous at best.

University of Iowa political-science Associate Professor Tim Hagle said it’s a big problem if a large group of people actually abstain come Election Day because their candidate didn’t secure the party’s nomination.

“Regardless of what happens in the primary, the people of the party have to come together,” he said.

Nevertheless, Hagle, a county co-chairman for Branstad, said he thinks the GOP isn’t at the point where the word “schism” should come into play.

But ignoring an obvious party divide between moderate, fiscally conservative Republicans and religious-right ideologues is simply obtuse. At the same time, ignoring the perils facing Iowa Democrats is equally ignorant. A creeping anti-incumbent movement suggests if the GOP wants to secure a spot in the governor’s mansion, candidates must strike a happy medium between western Iowa conservatives and eastern Iowa moderates. After all, what realistic competition does current Gov. Chet Culver present?

According to a February poll by Rasmussen Reports, Branstad leads Culver 53 percent to 37 percent among likely Iowa voters in a hypothetical race. In another matchup, Vander Plaats’ 46 percent edges out Culver’s 40 percent. In addition, 57 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the way Culver has handled his job. Thirty-four percent of respondents said they held a very unfavorable view of Culver.

Iowa City resident John Deeth, a liberal political activist and prominent blogger, is betting on Vander Plaats in the primary.

“I think [social conservatives] vote for [Branstad] over Culver in the end,” Deeth said. “Of course, that’s assuming Branstad gets through the primary, and I’m not sure he will.”

But really, how the race for Terrace Hill will conclude is best punctuated by three words from Deeth: “I’m not sure.”

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