By Timothy Bella
DENVER, Colo. (CBS Denver) — Tim Tebow could be a deciding factor come January — not just for a possible playoff game involving the Denver Broncos — but for which Republican wins the Iowa caucus.
A recent poll out of Iowa indicates that Tebow’s Christianity and pro-life support corresponds to the current Iowa electorate, the first major test in deciding a Republican nominee. Iowa residents who view Tebow favorably have former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as their first choice for the Republican nomination at 29 percent, according to a recent Public Policy Polling poll. Gingrich, whose recent surge in the polls has him as the Republican front-runner, won the Tea Party Straw Poll conducted by the Tea Party Patriots on Sunday, taking home 31 percent of the vote among the 23,000-plus supporters of the cause who took part in the poll.
On the flip side, the PPP poll found that those Iowa residents who looked at Tebow unfavorably have Texas Rep. Ron Paul as their first choice with 38 percent. Paul garnered just 3 percent of the vote in the Tea Party straw poll.
Whether a sect of Tebow fans should be directly linked to Tea Party loyalists cannot be quantified, but the connection to Gingrich in the PPP poll and a stamp of approval from fellow evangelical Sarah Palin during the weekend makes it clear that some of the Tea Party’s most notable and supportable figures are all about Tebowmania.
“I am so pro-Tebow, you know he is so unashamed of his savior, Jesus of Nazareth,” Palin told Fox News on Sunday. “He knows Jesus is going to rock your world when you give it over to him, and he’s bold about it, and he knows that the son of God should be honored and praised. Tebow does that and I respect it.”
Maybe it comes as no surprise that one of the more religiously-fueled politicians of the past decade has supported one of the more religiously-fueled athletes of the same time period. Steven F. Hayward, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., told CBS Denver that the religious right layer of the Tea Party is the one most making its voice heard in regard to someone like Tebow, whose act of kneeling and praying before the game, or “Tebowing,” has become a nationwide phenomena.
“Among religious-minded people, there’s lot of affection for figures like Sarah Palin or athletes like Tim Tebow as people who make public expressions of faith,” Hayward said. “People rally to that person.”
And other Republican politicians and pundits are getting in on the Tebow craze. Just last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, once a favorite of Tea Partiers who has since seen his support from the group become nonexistent, identified who he wanted to be heading into January’s Iowa caucuses.
“I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses,” Perry said last week. “There are a lot of folks that said Tim Tebow wasn’t going to be a very good NFL quarterback. And, you know, he won two national championships. And that looked pretty good.”
In Iowa, radio host Chuck Laudner likened Rick Santorum to the Broncos quarterback last week, touting the candidate as something of an underestimated dark horse in Iowa.
“They’re watching the Tim Tebow of the Republican process out there, working all the way through the fourth quarter,” Laudner said.
But with Tebow’s rise come his critics. Tebow and the Broncos haven’t been free from viral campaigns aimed to address social issues. Recently, the Denver Broncos declined a request to join up with the “It Gets Better” campaign, which attempts to curb suicides among lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender teens who have been bullied. “It’s the good Christian thing to do,” petition organizer Andy Szekers, a Denver Broncos fan, said in the petition. Earlier this year, Tebow’s publicist prevented the quarterback from answering a question about same-sex marriage in an interview with the Washington Post.
Last week, a pro-choice blogger started a campaign for people to donate $10 for every touchdown Tebow scored on Sunday. In 2010, Tebow participated in an ad for Focus on the Family that ran during the Super Bowl, which talked about the importance of being pro-life. The blog post would go viral on Twitter, starting a discussion on a social issue in a political context involving an athlete.
“My issue with Tebow is neither his religion nor his anti-choice beliefs, rather, his advocacy for the anti-choice cause,” Sophia Brugato, the blogger of the post, told CBS Denver late last week. “He’s put himself, purposely, in front of the anti-choice movement with the message that ‘if I was aborted, I wouldn’t be here as the most amazing quarterback on the planet.’”
With the PPP poll drawing an indirect link between Tebow and Tea Party politics, there could be a question one day of whether Tebow would get into politics and if he would associate himself with the Tea Party. In 2009, then-Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist said that he had spoken to Tebow about a future in politics. “We’ve talked about it a little bit,” Crist said. “I’d be more than honored to try to help him in some small way. Our state and our nation needs great leaders like him.”
Although there could be juice behind Tebow shifting to politics when his playing days are over, Hayward said that the odds of the Tea Party uniting around a figure such as Tebow, wouldn’t be that strong.
“The Tea Party is impossible to unite around one person,” Hayward said, adding that Palin was the closest to being that person. A New York Times/CBS News poll last year found that despite two-thirds of Tea Partiers having a favorable opinion of Palin, 47 percent said she lacks the ability to be an effective president. “If the Tea Party tried to become an actual party like Ross Perot’s Reform Party, that’s the day it would split up and dissipate.”
Until then, Gingrich and the Tea Party could very well be “Tebowing” come the Iowa caucuses.