In the coalition-building exercise that occurs every four years during a Republican presidential race, libertarians and evangelicals have always been wary of each other. Nowhere has that been more obvious than the first-in-the-nation contest state of Iowa, which has given surprising lifts to evangelical favorites such as Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee over the years.
That history would suggest that Rand Paul, the iconic libertarian in the 2016 race, might have much to worry about Feb. 2 when the Iowa caucuses are held.
But the senator from Kentucky has spent much time and effort over the past two years building essential bridges to evangelical leaders who have automatic affinity for rivals such as Mr. Huckabee and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. He has traveled to Israel to show his support there, met with pastors and talked openly about his own Christian faith.
On the eve of his first official presidential campaign visit to Iowa on Friday, there are signs that Mr. Paul might be making progress. A poll released Thursday showed him leading Hillary Rodham Clinton in a hypothetical general election matchup and outperforming many of his Republican rivals.
Some longtime Iowa political observers say Mr. Paul could prove history wrong this time.
“Rand Paul is uniquely positioned to win right now,” Iowa pastor Mark Doland told The Washington Times. “If you handicap the 2012 caucuses and apply the narrative, he wins. There are multiple establishment candidates and evangelical candidates that will split that vote many ways.”
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As if to make the point about Mr. Paul’s competitiveness in Iowa, the Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed him performing better against Mrs. Clinton in Iowa and Colorado, both swing states, than did Mr. Huckabee, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Do the numbers imply that Mr. Paul is big enough with evangelicals to take Iowa and run? Not yet, observers say, noting that Mr. Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul, never quite connected with religious conservatives in the state.
“Rand Paul is seen by evangelicals as an interesting candidate,” Mr. Doland said. “They are intrigued about his brand of conservatism with his strong appeals to young people.”
Mr. Doland and others say Mr. Paul will have to adjust his campaign’s basic approach, which sometimes seems as if it wants to be all things to all people.
“Evangelicals are watching to see how he differs from his father — as are many others voters,” said Mr. Doland. “He appears to stand with Israel, and that is appealing to the evangelical base of the party.”
Mr. Paul began his informal Republican nomination quest more than two years ago with the active wooing of born-again Christians, especially in Iowa. He has been partially successful, by most accounts, but not enough to push him comfortably ahead of three rivals: Mr. Cruz and Mr. Huckabee, both Protestants, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Catholic convert from Hinduism. Some put Mr. Walker, also an evangelical, in that top tier of competitors for the blessings of Iowa evangelicals as well.
“Rand is the only candidate that inherits a segment of the vote that was substantial in 2012 and that went to his father,” said Mr. Doland, the evangelical pastor.
Iowa, not New Hampshire, was the early contest state that Ron Paul came closest to winning clearly and unequivocally in 2012.
Ron Paul, who was representing Texas in Congress, delivered what Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker at the time called “a 200 proof libertarian message” and still managed to grab 21.4 percent of the vote in Iowa, good for third but only 3 percentage points behind former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in first place and eventual party nominee Mitt Romney in second.
But that was a “beauty contest.” In the complicated delegate-apportionment process, which required further conventions, Iowa ended up looking almost like the home turf of the Paulistas. The elder Mr. Paul’s loyalists captured 22 of the 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention. Mr. Spiker had won election as Iowa GOP chairman in February 2012 and was the first Paul supporter to sit on the Republican National Committee.
The choice for Rand Paul may boil down to two options: Does he serve his quest for Iowa evangelical voters better by de-emphasizing or disavowing his reluctance to go to war abroad for nation-building or other reasons short of absolute necessity and his views on legalizing marijuana and on same-sex marriage? Or is it wiser for him to return to his libertarian roots, perhaps with the admiration and trust of at least a portion of the evangelical electorate?
“I sense the evangelical movement in Iowa has matured somewhat and is looking for a candidate it can trust but also can win the general election,” said Iowa Republican fundraiser Daryl Kearney.
Mr. Doland said Mr. Paul must avoid trying to be all things to all factions in his party and stick to his themes of preserving personal freedoms at home and mounting wars abroad.
“Rand is starting to embrace his libertarian roots, which he needs to do,” said Mr. Doland. “Further, he is growing his base by appealing to new voters that typically don’t vote in Republican Party primaries. I have chided my congregation that we need to be doing more than preaching to the choir if we are ever going to grow the church.”
“Rand is doing this essentially by evangelizing to people who come from different backgrounds. He needs to keep his messaging consistent and continue to prove that he is his own man.”
Mr. Paul’s progress aside, some Iowans argue that if Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Cruz are neck and neck in polling for evangelical vote as the caucuses near, evangelicals will move to the man they affectionately call “Huck.”
Why? Because he was once a pastor, whereas Mr. Cruz’s father was the pastor in the family. Another reason is they prefer a governor to a senator.
“I could make a case that evangelicals migrate to Huckabee if it is close for two reasons. Neither is because he was a pastor,” Mr. Doland said. “First, voters traditionally prefer an executive. Huckabee was a governor.
“Second, Cruz has a job in the Senate and conservatives will see it as a win-win if they can send Huckabee to the White House and Cruz gets to remain as their champion in the U.S. Senate.”