As presidential candidates head into the home stretch in Iowa - the caucuses are just three weeks away - one issue apparently has become just as important as the war in Iraq or the economy: Religion.
Polls now show former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, pulling ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, after weeks of campaigning as a "Christian" leader.
When Huckabee appeared on stage with the other candidates in a debate Wednesday night, it was his first debate as the presumptive Iowa front-runner. But It was not the first time he referenced something religious.
"I can't part the Red Sea, but I believe I can part the red tape," he said, talking about government bureaucracy.
Huckabee has risen to the top by saying things like, "Faith doesn't just influence me, it really defines me," as he proclaims in a TV ad.
Hamline University's David Schultz said faith is a particularly important topic in Iowa, "unlike, perhaps, a place like New Hampshire, where you don't have quite the same strength of religious conservatism as you have in a place like Iowa."
Last week, it was Romney who appealed to Christian conservatives in a highly publicized speech.
"I believe in my Mormon faith," he said. "And I endeavor to live by it."
Schultz said there's a good reason candidates are spending so much time talking about faith.
"We really do see a connection, across the board, that the more people attend religious institutions on a weekly basis, or over the course of a year, the more likely they are to vote."
And Schultz said that's true in both parties, which is why Barack Obama has been using faith-based references in speeches, and Hillary Clinton and John Edward have said publicly that faith carried them through tough times.
Faith also is behind the latest dust-up on the campaign trail.
In a New York Times Magazine article coming out this Sunday, Huckabee is quoted as asking, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
Huckabee told CNN he feels like he's been pushed to make Romney's religion even more of an issue.
"(But) if I do say anything, then I'm attacking him," Huckabee said. "So I'm not sure how to deal with that."
The Mormon church said that remark is a misstatement of Mormon faith.
And Huckabee said he apologized to Romney for making the remark after Wednesday's debate.
The debate was the final chance for Republican candidates to square off before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
The Democrats will have their final pre-caucus debate Thursday.
(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)