So you can add another car to the crazy train that is the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest. No, I'm not talking about last week's sensation, Donald Trump. He's a pretty conventional figure compared to the latest would-be president, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who is currently barnstorming through Iowa after announcing an exploratory committee.
You may remember Judge Moore as the man who was forced from his judicial post after refusing to remove a gigantic monument to the Ten Commandments from his courthouse. He was also known for abrasive comments from the bench about homosexuality as contrary to God's will, which in Moore's opinion was dispositive. A martyr for theocrats everywhere, Moore spent some time hauling his monument around Alabama before launching two notably unsuccessful gubernatorial races -- coming in a bad second in 2006's Republican primary and a bad fourth in 2010 -- and becoming a minor fixture at tea party events.
Moore was undoubtedly drawn to Iowa by that state's furor over same-sex marriage, decreed legal by a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling. Iowa's powerful Christian Right movement has made overturning that decision Job One, beginning with a successful effort in 2010 to remove three of the seven jurists responsible for it. It's one of the few places left where Republicans don't try to ignore the whole issue of gay rights as a divisive loser of an issue (which is why presidential wannabees like Tim Pawlenty have anachronistically come out against the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell). For Moore, it must have felt more like "home" than home.
Before writing off Moore as a kook trying to horn in on the spotlight of a presidential race, consider the company he's keeping on his tour of the first-in-the-nation-caucuses state: former state legislator Danny Carroll. Carroll was co-chairman (with three-time gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats) of Mike Huckabee's successful 2008 Caucus campaign, and more recently, signed on as a lobbyist for Vander Plaats' new Christian Right umbrella group, The Family Leader. He's a reasonably big deal in Iowa GOP circles, and by no means someone who howls at the moon.
For all I know, Carroll sees something in the crusty Alabama judge that others haven't seen. Or maybe Judge Moore is a convenient stalking horse for Huckabee, designed to keep The Faithful loose and out of anyone else's camp, in case Huck ultimately decides to run.
Regardless of Carroll's (or Moore's) personal motives, it's likely the national Republican chattering class will dismiss the Judge's campaign as a joke even worse than Trump's. Or, it may be said, there is now such a crowd on the far right that opportunities are opening up for more moderate possibilities like Romney, T-Paw or an establishment-backed candidate-yet-to-be-named.
But I'd like to suggest another theory: the Christian/tea party right in Iowa is big enough, powerful enough, and politically sophisticated enough to hold its own caucus-within-a-caucus (well, caucuses, to be technical about it), an intramural contest to determine which candidate will actually represent the cause when Iowa Republicans make their final commitments before Caucus Night. Proven zealots like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and now Moore, will joust with more suspect supplicants like T-Paw, Newt Gingrich -- and maybe even Donald Trump! -- over the next few months, with someone emerging as the designated favorite of the political army of the Lord. That is arguably what happened in Iowa in 2008, when Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback fought to become the Christian Right alternative to Mitt Romney, with Huckabee becoming The Man only after he out-organized Brownback at the State Party Straw Poll in Ames during the summer.
Moore's candidacy may not ultimately have any direct influence on what happens next winter in Iowa, when conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics get together to shape the 2012 Republican nominating process.
But he could indeed intensify the competition for Christian Right voters. And just as importantly, he could definitely serve as a symbol of the ideological and psychological gap between rigorous conservative activists and the mainstream political commentariat. Most of the latter think Moore is a crazy person. But most of the Iowa audiences before which Moore speaks will consider him an authentic if polarizing voice expressing the Word of God. That's a pretty big gulf in perception, but also a pretty good reflection of the real differences Americans experience in how they view their leaders.
See also: Josh Green's profile of Vander Plaats, "The Iowa Caucus Kingmaker," from our May issue of The Atlantic.
Image credit:Tami Chappell (Reuters)