The battle for the “Bible belt”, one of the most crucial constituencies in the Republican White House race, will begin in earnest in Waterloo, Iowa on Sunday, where Texas governor Rick Perry, who announced his candidature on Saturday, is to speak at a dinner in the Electric Park ballroom that will also be attended by congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
Bachmann changed her diary to be there, setting up an early showdown between two Christian evangelicals either of whom could be Barack Obama’s opponent in the presidential election next year.
Bachmann received a big early advantage on Saturday night when she came top of the Republican straw poll in Ames, the biggest political festival in America this year. In the second biggest vote in the history of the straw poll, with almost 17,000 voting, Bachmann took 4,823. Perry, as he had not declared in time, was not on the ballot but still managed to win 718 write-ins. The victory provides Bachmann with a short-term advantage but it is unlikely to last long with the arrival of Perry. The real race begins now.
The importance of the evangelical vote is huge, representing an estimated 40% of Republicans who will vote in the Iowa caucus, which is scheduled for February. Iowa, as the first of the contests, matters – helping to propel candidates to the front of the race and seeing others heading for oblivion.
Bachmann has received the endorsement of more than 100 pastors and Christian leaders in the state in the past week alone. But Perry’s entry upsets her calculations. He is both a politician and part-time preacher, the kind of southerner who appeals to the Christian right. “Perry’s entry shifts the dynamic,” said Steve King, a rightwing congressman from Iowa, who was speaking at the Iowa state fair, where a string of Republican candidates used soapboxes to address voters sitting on straw bales.
King is close to Bachmann but said he would not endorse anyone until after Labour Day, on September 5. Other Republicans in the race such as Rick Santorum and Herman Cain have made bids for the Christian right, but it is Bachmann who appears to have won them over with her anti-gay rhetoric and strong views on abortion and other social issues.