Gary Bauer emerged from Sunday church here, climbed into his campaign van, and turned immediately to his strategist in the back seat:
"Oh man, that was really incredible!" he said to his strategist. "You just don't know what nuggets you're going to find as you travel around the country and do this sort of thing."
Nuggets? That morning, Pastor Francis Frangipane struck a spiritual chord with the story of King David - emphasizing he couldn't rule Israel until he was tested in the wilderness. Mr. Bauer, underdog of the GOP underdogs, actually took notes.
For the diminutive Bauer - perhaps as slight as the shepherd boy David - the Bible story may have carried meaning on several levels. His presidential candidacy is indeed a sort of wilderness: He scores a mere 2 or 3 percent in national polls. As he tells voters, he's the son of a janitor running against the son of a president and the son of a tycoon.
But for this Baptist and spokesman of the Christian right, the more salient point may be David's faith - how it propelled him, and, finally, how it affected his governing.
Since the Carter presidency, when reporters flocked to Plains, Ga., to find out what a born-again Baptist was, Americans have become more comfortable with presidents who openly show their faith.
Of course, the public has always expected the nation's chief executive to have strong religious faith, but hearing about it in some detail is a post-Carter expectation, says Allen Hertzke, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma. To this end, Democratic contender Al Gore and GOP front-runner George W. Bush have talked about their faith, but no one on the campaign trail infuses his candidacy with his faith as much as Bauer.
Still, in a country where separation of church and state is a deep tradition, the Bauer candidacy raises the question of whether his religious values simply inform his decisionmaking, or whether they are an end in themselves. How, exactly, would he translate his faith-based convictions into policy?
Those who know this family man well say religion is central to Bauer's identity and influences his ideology. But "he does not believe that election of more 'godly people' is an end in itself," says Jeff Bell, senior adviser to the campaign. "For one thing, we don't question the faith of those who disagree with us. We don't say that someone who has faith must come to the same political and ideological conclusion that Gary comes to."
William Kristol agrees. He worked with Bauer at the Department of Education during the Reagan years, when William Bennett was secretary, Bauer undersecretary, and Mr. Kristol chief of staff. "Bill Bennett's Catholic, I'm Jewish, Gary's Protestant. We had a million meetings..., and no one ever appealed to Scripture or some personal revelation to tell them what the right decision was," says Kristol, now editor of the Weekly Standard.
Yet Bauer's political message - that the country suffers from a "virtue deficit" - shows a strong link between the candidate's religious values and his policy objectives. America, his campaign speech goes, has lost sight of what the Founding Fathers saw - that liberty ultimately comes from God, not just a system of checks and balances. It has missed the key moral message of the Declaration of Independence: the equality of men and the right to life (including unborn life), liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
America is "upside down," says Bauer, when teenagers shoot one another, a girl at a prom gives birth and deposits her newborn in the trash, a black man is dragged to death behind a pickup, and New Jersey students are prevented from daily reciting the Declaration of Independence in part because it sounds like prayer.
Political analysts say Bauer's moral influence as a president would come mostly through the bully pulpit. This father of three and former president of the Family Research Council says he would, for instance, "shame" Hollywood into making more family-friendly products.
But were he to succeed - and that's a huge "if" - turning America right side up would be quite a jolt.
As president, Bauer says he would put the pro-life litmus test to US Supreme Court nominees, aiming to overturn Roe v. Wade. Again, by putting conservative judges on the bench, he would allow states to hang the 10 Commandments in public buildings. These judges, he hopes, would never permit same-sex marriage.
In a six-seater Cessna, hopscotching across Iowa from Des Moines to Dubuque, the congenial Bauer elaborated in an interview on two stages of his life that most shaped his personal and political values: his youth in Newport, Ky. (a Cincinnati suburb dubbed "sin city"), and his eight years in the Reagan administration.
Newport was a seedy gambling town, gripped by organized crime. His daily walk to school took him past early-morning prostitutes and strip joints. His father was an alcoholic, and Bauer dreaded weekends and holidays when his dad was at his worst. His savior was his grandmother. She would come by Sunday mornings and, often unable to rouse his parents, would take him to the Baptist church.
As a high school sophomore, he joined a campaign of local reformers to promote a "Switch to Honesty" ticket in 1961. For his leafletting and door-to-door work, the tires on the family car were slashed.
Eventually, after a grand-jury investigation and the attention of the FBI, the crime ringleaders deserted Newport for warmer climes. "I saw up close the results of the breakdown of values," said Bauer, who recently returned to Newport to shoot his first campaign ad. "I saw a lot of typical working-class families who were already on the edge economically be pushed over the edge by the things one could partake of. There was a great deal of spousal abuse and family breakup."
But Bauer's blue-collar background also ensured that, unlike Steve Forbes, his main rival for conservative votes, he would not grow up to become a country club Republican - even if he did graduate from Georgetown University law school.
On the contrary, political analysts describe Bauer as a "populist" who is hard to pigeonhole. He would preserve Social Security, and wants patients to be able to sue their providers and seniors to be allowed to join the federal health program.
Almost as much as he brings up his formative years in Newport, Bauer mentions his tenure in the Reagan White House (though he jokes that it's his years in Washington that wore him down to 5' 6"). Indeed, unlike the other GOP candidates, Bauer stuck to Mr. Reagan from start to finish, joining his 1982 campaign and finishing as his chief domestic policy adviser.
What he admires about Reagan, says Bauer, is his steadfast vision. Carrying that torch, Bauer says he would stand up to China just as Reagan stood up to the Soviet Union. He would urge that the US revoke China's favorable trade status, arguing it's wrong to put commerce above human rights.
The Bauer campaign acknowledges that invoking Reagan's name broadens their candidate's appeal, helping him be more than a pro-life candidate of the religious right.
But it is Bauer himself - his nonargumentative style, his ability to articulate, his nice-guy sensibilities - who breaks the stereotype of a Bible-thumping, in-your-face radical. An Iowa volunteer described him as Pat Buchanan minus the sock in the eye.
"He may be the most articulate of the Republican candidates. If you looked at any individual argument, you'd be impressed," says independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
Cases in point: When arguing for voluntary school prayer, Bauer says he only wants "equal access" for faith-based ideas. When arguing against abortion even in cases of rape, he says he's met too many people conceived in rape to turn his back on them.
When Bauer campaigned in Iowa recently, listeners said they were "surprised" by the quality and breadth of his ideas, and impressed by his honesty. Still, many want to go with a winner, and 49 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say they'll back Mr. Bush. Seven percent back Bauer.
The singular hope of the Bauer campaign is that he'll finish second in Iowa and emerge as the conservative alternative to a mainstream Bush. Bauer insists he'll make it to the GOP convention this summer.
But if not, a comment after the Cedar Rapids church service reveals one way he may be thinking about his candidacy. "It would actually be more important if [people] came out of [the church] and were more likely to act out their faith in the public square, whatever happens to me."
*This is the second article in a series about the presidential candidates. The first appeared Nov. 16.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society