This is supposed to be Mike Huckabee's make-or-break night.
The former Arkansas governor has emerged as the potential "Jimmy Carter" of the 2008 presidential race – a virtual unknown from the south who, with little money and few national endorsements, uses a breakthrough win in the Iowa caucuses to go national. Huckabee is now statistically tied with the GOP frontrunner in Iowa, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
A strong performance in tonight's CNN/YouTube Republican debate could give Huckabee, who must rely on free media to offset Romney's self-financed "money-is-no-object" campaign, the boost he needs to take the lead.
But with competitiveness should come scrutiny. And that is why tonight's debate must address the fundamental – or, perhaps, we should say fundamentalist -- question that has been raised by the rise of Huckabee.
Is the Arkansan's campaign intentionally stoking anti-Mormon bias in order to draw evangelical conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere away from Romney's bandwagon?
No serious observer of what's playing out in Iowa will disagree with the New York Times assessment that: "The religious divide over Mitt Romney's Mormon faith that his supporters had long feared would occur is emerging in Iowa as he is being challenged in state polls by Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor who has played up his faith in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Huckabee's rise in Iowa -- some recent polls now put him in a dead heat with Mr. Romney, who had led surveys for months -- has been fueled by evangelical Christians, who believe Mormonism runs counter to Christian orthodoxy."
Huckabee backers in Iowa have been quoted as referring to Romney, a member of one of Mormonism's most prominent families, as a politician "who's going to be acting on an anti-Christian faith as the basis of their decision-making." The former Arkansas governor's Iowa campaign co-chair, veteran Republican activist Daniel Carroll, has been quoted as saying that Christians prefer Huckabee over Romney because Huckabee "prays to the God of the Bible.'
Mormon's do pray to the God of the Bible, by they add another book to the Old and New Testaments: The Book of Mormon. Evangelicals reject the Book of Mormon as false prophesy. And they mince few words with regard to Mormons. "Evangelicals who conclude Mormonism a cult do conclude that Mormons' prayers to God do not ‘get through' because they are not actually petitioning the God of the Bible but a deity of a cultic base," writes Maine pastor Joseph Grant Swank Jr., who writes frequently about what evangelicals refer to as "truth-in-conviction" matters.
In a pluralistic society, evangelicals have a right to their views, as do Mormons.
So what is the question for Huckabee? A simple one: Does he, as someone who seeks to be the president of the United States, respect and endorse Article VI, Section 3, of the Constitution, which states that: "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States"?
If Huckabee were to be nominated for the presidency, he would on January 20, 2009, place his hand on a Bible and swear a solemn oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
That oath, necessarily, requires a rejection of precisely the sort of religious test that Huckabee backers are applying to Mitt Romney.
If Huckabee avows that he is indeed committed to the Constitution, and if he declares that he opposes the application of any religious test, then he must face a second question: Will the candidate Mike Huckabee and the Huckabee campaign make it absolutely clear that they want neither the support nor the votes of those who would oppose Mitt Romney's candidacy on the basis of religion?