It seems to be a whole new race for both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa. This is particularly true for the Republican candidates, who were in a lackluster campaign until Romney, the leader of the pack, saw Huckabee closing in on him from near the back of the pack, and actually nosing ahead by a couple of points. Romney had to do something to stop this momentum.

He and the news media assumed that since Huckabee is a former Southern Baptist minister, while Romney is a Mormon, the Republicans’ hard-core constituency of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists must be biased against Romney’s Mormon religion.

This was not an unfounded assumption, since the Christian right in general does not consider Mormons to be Christian, regardless of how Mormons identify themselves. Mormons do not consider the Bible to be “without error or contradiction” as do evangelicals and fundamentalists. The Christian right also complains that the Mormon Church has put the Book of Mormon, with its prophesies by Joseph Smith, the church’s “latter day saint” founder, on equal footing with the Old and New Testaments.

In a speech reminiscent of Kennedy’s 1960 speech aimed at overcoming bias against his candidacy as a Roman Catholic, Romney declared, “When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God.” He also implied common ground with his core constituency by adding, “There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation’s founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessing of the Creator.” When asked about atheists and agnostics, he conceded that some people not of faith are also moral.

Though these words may have assuaged the misgivings of a few, polls taken afterward saw Huckabee widen his lead over Romney’s, with others in the pack far behind. The speech appeared to consolidate the conservative religious base behind Huckabee.

However, there are other factors that may weigh as heavily in the scales as religious bias. Leading up to the startling change in the lead of the two candidates, their differing appearance in debates left a marked impression on Iowans. Romney appeared decisive and presidential, but too sure of himself, like an arrogant CEO with unlimited financial resources. His agenda and demeanor were of someone too dangerous to trust with power.

Huckabee on the other hand looked a little frumpy, but genuine, with a sense of humor, poking fun at himself. With a kind of “down home” charisma, he came across as thoughtful, fair and kindly, not strident or fanatical, with no air of unctuous piety or self-righteousness. However, with a “stay the course” agenda not unlike Romney’s, Huckabee is really more dangerous. His “sincere” demeanor aims to attract not just his Christian right constituency, but the large number of independent voters and “Reagan Democrats.” With the right running mate he could split organized labor’s vote and take away not just Catholic conservatives, but also moderates.

The 2008 election could be a real horse race, and cannot be taken for granted!

Faced with this new turn of events, Democrats will need to come out of the caucuses and primaries united and able to reach out to the missing middle of the electorate. Moderate and progressive Christians, Jews and Muslims have a particularly critical role to play. They recognize that in this incredibly diverse country and world, we must have genuine mutual respect and tolerance in order to live together. Without it we could end up destroying ourselves in wars of religion and environmental devastation.

Moderate and progressive religious groups, in addition to nonreligious groups, can together argue with conviction that our secular political framework is necessary to the common good. We need to put aside our differences and thoughtfully listen to a nation that has rejected endless wars, abhors torture and undermining of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and mourns the resultant loss of hope and community. A better world is possible, and everyone knows it. Most of us know that it won’t happen by “staying the course.” We need to come together, listen to the hurts, speak to the hopes, and make it happen together!

Gil Dawes is a Methodist minister and social justice activist in Iowa.