Republican presidential hopefuls gather Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California for perhaps the first critical debate of the primary election season.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has publicly doubted the science of climate change and says creationism should be taught alongside evolution, is the new front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. He's not alone in these views. If the topic of science comes up during the debate, the views of all of the GOP presidential candidates will be on display before a national audience.
Two unusual things happened on the East Coast a couple of weeks ago. First, there was an earthquake that rumbled from Virginia to New York. Then Hurricane Irene drove past the usually stormier states in the South to hit the Eastern Seaboard, including Washington, D.C., Maryland, New York and Vermont.
At the time, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who started her political career fighting for creationism to be taught in schools alongside evolution, said at a campaign rally that perhaps God was sending signals to politicians in Washington.
"You'd think by now they'd get the message," Bachmann said. "An earthquake, a hurricane ... are you listening?"
When asked about that by reporters, Bachmann said clearly she was joking. But she's made similar comments before. In April 2009, she talked to a conservative news website about the recent outbreak of swine flu.
"I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then, under another [Democratic] president, Jimmy Carter," she said. "And I'm not blaming this on President Obama; I just think it's an interesting [coincidence]."
The outbreak she's talking about actually began in 1976 — under President Ford. But the message is clear — Bachmann believes something other than physical and biological processes drives events on planet Earth.
Perry does too.
At a campaign stop last month, a child asked Perry what he thinks about evolution. He told the boy, "it's a theory out there that has some gaps in it."
At a voter breakfast in New Hampshire, Perry was asked about the overwhelming scientific evidence that shows human actions are a substantial cause of global warming. While he did agree that the climate was changing, he said that it's been changing since the Earth began.
"Scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that manmade global warming is what is causing the climate to change," Perry said.
As for how Perry would fund environmental actions if he were president?
"I don't think, from my perspective, that I want America to be engaged in spending that much money on [a still] scientific theory that has not been proven," he said, "and from my perspective is being put more and more into question."
Now, these comments from Perry and Bachmann do not describe the beliefs of the Republican Party as a whole. There are many in the GOP who strongly support scientific research and evidence-based policy making. In fact, former Utah Gov. John Huntsman. another candidate for the nomination, sent this tweet after Perry's remarks on global warming:
"To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
But the comments do show which wing of the GOP is driving the primary process right now: the socially conservative, religious Republicans.
A Temporary Boost
Rich Galen, a GOP analyst not working with any campaign, says Bachmann's and Perry's comments could give them a boost — at least for a while.
"It will help them in the early stages, up to the point, I think, the time when people actually begin to vote," Galen says.
Galen predicts that Republican primary voters will decide these candidates are too far to the right to beat President Obama in the general election.
Princeton professor Julian Zelizer agrees that challenging science has a certain appeal for some conservatives, but says it won't play so well among independents and fiscal conservatives.
"The Republican Party was once the party of business and market — and now they could become the party of anti-science," Zelizer says.
That could be catastrophic for the party, says Zelizer, because in order to be relevant, a political party eventually has to attract many more voters than just its base.