- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2015

Donald Trump is leading among evangelical Republican voters nationally, but those on the ground in Iowa, where religious conservatives play an outsize role in picking GOP presidential nominees, say they can’t see it lasting.

The rise of Ben Carson among evangelical voters underscores their tenuous support for the billionaire businessman, and lingering questions about Mr. Trump’s own faith, plus the usual rhythms of the political cycle, will likely reel him in, analysts said.

“As the season changes we get a bit more serious — it’s when people realize this caucus is coming up, and we’re going to have to go to the local precinct, stand up in front of a group and say who we support and why,” said Craig Robinson, editor in chief of the Iowa Republican. “As the race nears, social conservative voters will find their way back to their more natural harbors in terms of candidate selection.”

That appears to already be happening, with Mr. Carson narrowing the gap with Mr. Trump in Iowa. A Quinnipiac University Poll released on Friday found Mr. Carson easily winning over born-again evangelical voters, with support from 27 percent of those surveyed, compared with 20 percent for Mr. Trump. The poll echoes earlier results found by the most recent Bloomberg/Des Moines Register Poll, in which Mr. Carson beats Mr. Trump with Christian conservatives by a 7-point margin, with several poll respondents describing Mr. Carson as “a kind Christian whom they can trust.”

Mr. Carson himself seemed to provoke the issue last week when asked to differentiate himself from Mr. Trump and pointing to his own beliefs: “Probably the biggest thing — I’ve realized where my success has come from, and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God.”

Mr. Trump pushed back, and by week’s end Mr. Carson was easing off his attack.


Still, activists wondered whether either man will be religious conservatives’ pick in the end.

“Trump and Carson are viewed positively by many the same way — they’re both successful, both outsiders,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Social Leader, a social conservative organization based in Iowa. “Historically, though, those on top of the polls with evangelical voters and Iowa caucus voters on September 10 are usually not the ones leading the polls on January 10. In other words, you have a lot of game yet to be played.”

Both Mr. Carson and Mr. Trump were absent from the rally held in support of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, whereas the two candidates most likely to win over Iowa evangelicals, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, were both there.

Mr. Carson has come out in support of Ms. Davis, but Mr. Trump said it was not the right job for her.

Mr. Trump has also hit plenty of sour notes with evangelical voters, including at Mr. Vander Plaats’ own Family Leadership Summit in July, where Mr. Trump spoke about his faith but admitted he’s never sought forgiveness for his sins.

When moderator Frank Luntz asked Mr. Trump directly if he’s ever asked God directly for forgiveness for his actions, Mr. Trump replied: “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

“There’s no doubt many in the audience found his answer offensive,” Mr. Vander Plaats said. “It’s one of those comments I think has long-term ramifications. As we get into the maturity of the campaign, people are going to start looking a little closer, and they’re going to find out there’s other candidates in the race other than Donald Trump.”

Another misstep came in an interview with Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin in late August. Mr. Trump had earlier stumped in Michigan, proclaiming his favorite book is the Bible. So Mr. Halperin asked Mr. Trump to cite his favorite Bible verses, to which Mr. Trump responded: “Well, I wouldn’t want to get into it, because to me that’s very personal.”

“What do you mean it’s personal? Are you joking?” said American Renewal Project leader David Lane, who is helping Iowa evangelical conservative pastors mobilize like-minded voters. “More than likely Trump’s not the real deal from a spiritual point of view, so that’s why I don’t think evangelicals will go for him.”

Mr. Lane also cited Mr. Trump’s flip-flop on abortion as a turn-off to many evangelical voters. In 1999 Mr. Trump described himself as “very pro-choice,” though he added, “I hate the concept of abortion.” He now says he is opposed to abortion.

Mr. Trump has also given mixed impressions on his position on Planned Parenthood, telling Fox New’s Bill O’Reilly last week he doesn’t support the organization and would look to defund it, seemingly contradicting his earlier remarks to CNN where he said he would want to take another look at all of Planned Parenthood’s services before eliminating funding.

Later that day, he defended his CNN remarks in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity.

“Let’s say there [are] two Planned Parenthoods in a way. You have it as an abortion clinic. Now that’s actually a fairly small part of what they do, but it’s a brutal part, and I’m totally against it, and I wouldn’t do that. They also, however, service women. We have to help women. We have to look at the positives, also, for Planned Parenthood,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Hannity in early August.

Planned Parenthood has come under fire in recent months from evangelical Christians and others for their handling — and potentially selling — of unborn fetuses of aborted babies.

“Somebody else is going to rise from an evangelical standpoint, you wait and see,” said Mr. Lane. “If we would’ve taken the fall polls in 2008 [former New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani would’ve won Iowa hands down and Huckabee would’ve been done. Donald Trump isn’t going to win over evangelical voters — he doesn’t know Jesus. He’s going to implode.”

• Kelly Riddell can be reached at kriddell@washingtontimes.com.

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