Mere hours before the Iowa caucus, the voices on the ground are echoing the indecision in the polls.
We interviewed Nabil Arafat in his Johnston, Iowa, home, gathered around the table over cups of coffee and salted nuts: Arab hospitality among the corn fields of Midwestern America. A Palestinian engineer who has been in the U.S. for 30 years, Mr. Arafat is a Ron Paul enthusiast. He said he has supported Paul for at least 15 years – far from a fair-weather fan.
As he talked about politics and his reasons for pulling for Paul, he rapped his knuckles against the table, punctuating his sentences with emphatic gestures.
Joining us was Mr. Arafat’s friend and fellow Ron Paul supporter, Dr. Samir Yassine, a medical doctor from nearby Clive. Dr. Yassine will vote for the first time since receiving American citizenship. Soft spoken and more reserved than Mr. Arafat, Dr. Yassine talked with quiet intensity about Paul’s foreign policy, most notably his stance against Israel’s bombing of Gaza in 2008.
The two men agree the Texas congressman, a Republican with very strong Libertarian leanings, upholds their values and proposes solid foreign policy, especially in regards to the Middle East. They both plan to vote Republican this year.
That is, unless Paul loses the Republican nomination. In that case, they both say they will vote for Obama.
“Obama… there are disappointments there. But he’s still better than any of the other Republicans. Even though I’m registered Independent and tend to vote Republican, I’ll vote for Obama if Paul is not the candidate,” said Mr. Arafat.
Enter stage further right the more conservative elements of the Republican Party, who say candidate Rick Santorum stands for the principles of their primary concern, “faith, family and freedom,” that they see rapidly eroding in America. One voter we talked to, a Santorum stalwart and small-business owner, said that Santorum was the perfect candidate for Christian conservatives in the U.S. – the “real deal,” in his words. He mimed making a checklist of ideal traits in a candidate and checking it off as he talked about Santorum.
Moments later, another young Iowan woman asserted without hesitation that Santorum was the best bet because his foreign policy was going to keep America safe. He understands the threat of Iran, and he understands the U.S. must protect Israel against those who would harm it, she told us. Her sound bites were eloquent and clipped, distilled down to key talking points.
The disparate factions of conservative voters have been coming to the fore in Iowa more than expected. They hold vastly different ideas about the role of the U.S. abroad, the social issues that drive their vote, and the economic principles that guide government involvement. The chief question remains which of the candidates appeals to the broadest group of Republicans – not just here in Iowa, but across the U.S. Even then, will it be enough to defeat Obama?
(Angela Simaan is a producer in Al Arabiya’s Washington, D.C. bureau. Follow her on Twitter @AngelaSimaan)