Mitt Romney's Powerful Iowa Enemy Redoubles His Efforts

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Conservative radio host Steve Deace is banging the drums against the former Massachusetts governor. Again.

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WEST DES MOINES -- To understand Steve Deace's feelings toward Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, one need listen no further than the one-minute canned introduction to the "Deace Show."

The song "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who plays and we hear an inspiring quote from President Ronald Reagan. The music shifts, then we hear the voice of President Obama, followed by remarks by Mitt Romney. Then Obama, then Romney. Then more Obama.

"We are no longer a Christian nation," Deace plays Obama saying, before switching to Romney talking about supporting gun laws, a woman's right to choose, and the Boy Scouts being open to people of all sexual orientations.

The implication is clear: Romney is no Reagan; he is an Obama-light. And the Mormon candidate may not even be a Christian.

The nightly barrage on Deace's show spells fresh trouble for Romney in Iowa, a state where he has never been strong -- or even fully committed to campaigning -- but still can't afford to come in at the back of the pack. Deace has been one of Iowa's most influential conservative radio hosts for several years, and this month his show went syndicated. It now airs in 21 markets, in Iowa and a handful of Southern states. During the fall, Deace was training his ire on Herman Cain. But when Cain dropped out of the race in early December, Deace turned his sights on Romney, reprising the air war he waged against the former Massachusetts governor in 2008 that one former aide says helped cost him the state.

I met with Deace at his home in West Des Moines in December, and he did not mince words when it came to Romney. "I would need to hear the audible voice of God telling me to vote for Mitt Romney," he said of what it would take for the episodic GOP front-runner to win his vote.

Deace said he'd be "fine" with any of three Republican candidates: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or Ron Paul. He said he was "intrigued" by Newt Gingrich and "interested in hearing more" from Rick Perry, as well. Last cycle, Deace backed Mike Huckabee, who went on to win the Iowa caucuses.

The enmity with Romney runs deep. Asked if Deace would vote for him if Romney gets past the Republican pack and heads into a match-up with President Obama, the answer was: Not likely. Deace repeated his line, word for word, that God would need to come talk to him to get him to cast a vote for Romney.

Deace talks about his Christianity a lot. He's also proudly anti-intellectual, a man who doesn't take himself too seriously. His website declares him a failure at college, a Star Wars and Star Trek fanatic, and a man who knows more about college football "than any man not living in a vow of perpetual virginity in his mom's basement should." (When we met, the Michigan native was wearing University of Michigan sweats or pajamas -- I couldn't tell which -- a Michigan hat and shirt, and was drinking coffee out of a Michigan mug.)

But don't be fooled by his everyman persona. Deace has a quick wit, the talent to verbally castrate an enemy, and an ability to drop plenty of somewhat obscure American historical references to back up his points. He quotes the bible regularly. He is absolutely certain that he holds the key to "the truth." And, perhaps most scary for would-be presidents, he knows a lot about what matters most to conservative voters in Iowa.

Deace's primary disdain for Romney, no major surprise, revolves around social issues. Deace recently devoted an entire hour, of his three-hour program, to lambasting Romney's record on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

Deace took up Santorum's argument that Romney refused to stand up to the Massachusetts courts, which legalized gay marriage when Romney was governor, calling it the "Pontius Pilate school of public policy." Deace mocked Romney, saying, "There's nothing I can do, the almighty, unelected judge hath spoken, and we must, like lemmings, follow said judge over a cliff."

(Romney argues that his legal counsel said he could not overturn the Supreme Court of Massachusetts' decision, and that he then led an effort to put in place a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as relationship between a man and a woman.)

In another hour of the show, Deace invited his listeners to call in and take a Romney quiz. Winners were promised a free copy of Deace's new book, We Won't Get Fooled Again: Where the Christian Right Went Wrong and How to Make America Right Again. The questions were all of the a-b-c variety.

In one example, Deace asked: When it came to amending the Massachusetts law to define marriage as between one man and one woman, did Romney:

a. When running for governor, denounce the marriage amendment as extreme?

b. When running for president, support the marriage amendment with great enthusiasm?

c. Both A and B.

And so the quiz progressed with callers repeatedly answering "c," and Deace feigning shock that Romney would change positions in the name of political opportunism.

But certainly there's more to a candidacy during these tough economic times than the same-sex marriage issue, right? What about the economy? What about Romney's business chops?

When we met, Deace said it didn't matter: "As Rudy Giuliani found out four years ago, if you're wrong on life, if you're wrong on marriage, people won't let you make the case how you turn the economy of New York City around. They don't care, because they view you as untrustworthy."

Image credit: REUTERS/Jim Young

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Jason Margolis is a reporter with the public radio program "PRI's The World."

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