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Presidential Candidates Divided Over Actions Of Kentucky Clerk

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Democrats running for president have been saying that Kim Davis needs to follow the law. She's the Kentucky county clerk in jail now for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For Republican presidential candidates, the Kim Davis question is far more complicated. NPR's Sam Sanders reports.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: GOP candidate Mike Huckabee has been the most vocal critic of Kim Davis's jailing. On Fox News this morning, the former Arkansas governor said what happened to Davis could happen to anyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS INTERVIEW)

MIKE HUCKABEE: Who's next? Are pastors next? Florists? Caterers? Who else goes to jail?

SANDERS: Texas Senator Ted Cruz has spoken on the issue with a similar intensity. Here he is on Fox News yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS INTERVIEW)

TED CRUZ: I stand with her and anyone else that the government is trying to persecute for standing up for their faith.

SANDERS: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is in the same camp. He issued a statement blasting Donald Trump for, quote, "refusing to stand up for Kim Davis." And speaking of Trump, here's what he had to say about it this morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MORNING JOE INTERVIEW)

DONALD TRUMP: The decision has been made, and that is the law of the land. It's a very tough situation but we are a nation - as I said yesterday - we're a nation of laws.

SANDERS: And last night in New Hampshire, Jeb Bush sought out a middle ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEB BUSH: There ought to be common ground. There ought to be big enough space for her to act on her conscience and for a gay couple to be married in whatever jurisdiction that is.

SANDERS: So why are these Republican candidates sounding so different on the same issue? Kedron Bardwell is a political science professor at Simpson College in Iowa, and he says it has a lot to do with appealing to conservative Republican voters in states like South Carolina and Iowa.

KEDRON BARDWELL: Well, if you look at the breakdown of the Iowa Republican Party, Republican caucus-goers, and you've got nearly 50 percent that would consider themselves Christian conservative or evangelical of some type.

SANDERS: Bardwell says candidates who want to do well with conservative voters in the upcoming Iowa caucuses could benefit from taking up the cause of Kim Davis. But, Bardwell says, that strategy might not play well in a general election because a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage.

BARDWELL: There are things that you can do to raise your standing in Iowa and do better in the caucuses that might actually hurt you later on.

SANDERS: Bardwell says candidates like Carly Fiorina might already be thinking of a strategy for the long haul. Fiorina has said she disagrees with the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, but she also says Kim Davis and other employees of the government are required to enforce it. Bardwell thinks we'll continue to see division amongst the GOP candidates on other issues as well.

BARDWELL: What this primary has done more than anything else is exposed some of the real fault lines within the Republican Party that have been developing over the last few years.

SANDERS: At least one candidate is betting a lot on this fault line - Mike Huckabee has scheduled a rally in support of Kim Davis for next Tuesday. He's also said he'll visit Davis in jail. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 8, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an early version of this story, an interview with Donald Trump conducted by MSNBC was incorrectly attributed to Fox News.