The debate didn't clarify.

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Who Will Capture Iowa Conservatives After Trump?

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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The Republican right, which feels it has been brushed aside in recent presidential elections, is fielding its strongest contingent of candidates for 2016. Iowa should be the perfect venue for determining the most formidable contender in this group.

One illustration of the strength of so-called movement-right aspirants in this election is that the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, looks like an also-ran, and the victor four years earlier, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, is struggling. Others vying for a chunk of the Christian conservative/Tea Party bloc include Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Texas Governor Rick Perry and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has veered more to the right in this contest.  

It may be that the winner, or even a conservative who places in the Hawkeye State, makes it to the finals to face a more establishment candidate such as Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Yet a random variable could throw off these calculations: Donald Trump. The businessman and entertainer is leading in Iowa and nationally, crowding out conservatives. He dominated the first presidential debate in Cleveland last week.

There's widespread acceptance in all Iowa camps that Trump is shrewdly tapping into pervasive anger and fear, winning support from constituencies such as evangelicals that wouldn't naturally be drawn to him. But equally widespread is their certainty that the Trump balloon will burst before the Feb. 1 caucuses that kick off the 2016 presidential contest.

"Iowans start thinking about this race around the holidays, a time of hearth, home, family and faith," said Jamie Johnson, an Iowa minister who works for Perry's campaign. "A thrice-married egomaniac who doesn't ask for God's forgiveness won't have staying power." 

Born-again Christians are a powerful force: They are likely to account for more than 40 percent of Republican caucus attendees. So far, these voters also are attracted to Trump's anti-Washington, nativist pitch.

If these Iowa Republicans are correct -- and second thoughts about Trump began with his controversial comments during and after the debate -- the battle for the right in Iowa will be intense and significant.

A day spent last week in Boone -- a town of 13,000 about 40 miles north of Des Moines whose voting patterns tend to track the statewide outcomes -- underscored the wide-open nature of the contest.

"There is more ambiguity than there usually is at this stage," Chip Baltimore, a Republican state representative, said over lunch. "A lot of these guys have different appeals."

Gary Nystrom, a mainstream Republican on the state party's central committee, said he was surprised that "a number of moderate conservative Republicans don't want another Bush." There is talk that Walker appeals both to more establishment Republicans and social-right elements.

Many on the right in Iowa and elsewhere complain that, too often, they've been foot soldiers for the conservative movement, and the party ends up nominating a moderate -- a label they apply to Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney. This time, these voters say, they want a candidate smart enough and tough enough to overcome this history.  

That is unlikely to occur until the Trump scenario plays out. Even then, it may be hard to coalesce behind one candidate -- last week's debate offered little help -- though Cruz, a champion debater and Harvard Law School graduate, is mentioned a bit more often.

The nightmare for the movement conservatives is that their strong field could split the religious right/Tea Party vote, enabling an establishment candidate to win. That's what Bush envisions, despite reports he might not compete forcefully in Iowa, focusing on New Hampshire instead.

That prospect doesn't sit well with religious and faith leaders such as Bob Vander Plaats: "If we want a third-party candidate named Trump, nominate Bush," he said.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net