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, heard footsteps drawing nearer, and looking behind, saw Huckabee closing on him. From near the back of the pack Huckabee had passed all those ahead of him, and not only came alongside, but actually nosed ahead by a couple of points. Romney had to do something to stop this momentum that could clearly turn into a rout.

He and the news media assumed that since the challenger for front runner is a former Southern Baptist minister, while Romney himself is a Mormon, the Republicans’ hardcore constituency of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists must be biased against Romney’s Mormon religion.

This was not a bad 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. Secondly, the Christian right points out 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 added 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 to 39 points to Romney’s 17, 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 stood out as decisive and presidential, but too sure of himself by half. Like an arrogant CEO with unlimited financial resources, he would “stay the course,” but with surer leadership. His agenda and demeanor were of someone too dangerous to trust with power.

Huckabee on the other hand looked a little frumpy, but genuine and with a sense of humor that allowed him to poke fun at himself. With a kind of Will Rogers “down home” charisma, he came across as thoughtful, fair and kindly, not strident or fanatical. He didn’t need to defend himself as a Southern Baptist preacher to the religious base of the party, yet had no air of unctuous piety or self-righteousness that would put off others. However, with a “stay the course” agenda not unlike Romney’s, Huckabee is really more dangerous. His demeanor inspires trust, not just aimed to his own constituency, but to the large number of independent voters and “Reagan Democrats.” With the right running mate he could have the potential to split organized labor’s vote and take away not just Catholic conservatives, but also moderates.

The 2008 election has the possibility of being a real horserace, 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. In this election, moderate and progressive Christians, Jews and Muslims have a particularly critical role to play. They recognize that this country and world are incredibly diverse and that we must have genuine mutual respect and tolerance in order to live together on this earth. 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 speak with conviction of our secular political framework as a necessary arena in which to seek 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.