December 31st, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Why do Iowa’s evangelicals wield so much political clout?

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) – At first blush, it’s just another standard-issue political rally.

Inside Mitt Romney’s Iowa headquarters – a former Blockbuster store on a commercial strip outside downtown – Romney and his wife, Ann, are introduced by former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty and his wife, Mary.

“It is an honor to be supporting Gov. Romney and Ann,” Mary Pawlenty tells the crowd of a couple hundred, a silver cross dangling from her neck. “They are good people, they share our values – these are people that we are delighted to call friends.”

How Mitt Romney's faith shaped him

A few moments later, Mitt Romney mentions his five sons and hands his microphone to 36-year-old Josh, who calls his dad “my hero.”

“He taught me my great love for this country,” Josh says, “and my great love for my family.”

Sounds like typical political posturing, right? Many Americans wouldn’t give such gestures a second thought.

But experts on religion and politics say the message to one particular subculture – evangelical Iowans – is clear: Mitt Romney may be Mormon, but he shares evangelical Christian values, including a rock-solid commitment to family, and counts high-profile evangelicals like the Pawlentys as friends and supporters.

“It’s less an attempt to create a trust among evangelicals and more to defuse a distrust,” says Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

Mark DeMoss, an evangelical PR specialist and Romney campaign adviser, puts a more positive spin on the strategy: “A number of evangelicals are really enthusiastic about him and have endorsed Romney, and for the same reason that I like him – he shares my values.”

Romney’s Mormonism and his past social liberalism have fed doubts about him among some evangelicals. But with the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses just days away, the former Massachusetts governor is hardly the only candidate honing his message for evangelical Iowans.

Newt Gingrich has met with hundreds of evangelical pastors in the state, talking policy but also about past marital infidelity, which many Christians consider a sin. Rick Perry has given Sunday morning testimonials from the pulpits of Hawkeye State megachurches.

Newt Gingrich's faith narrative

And Rick Santorum, who is riding a late-breaking surge in Iowa polls, and Michele Bachmann have all but staked their candidacies on winning big among evangelical Iowans, claiming to be more conservative than the rest of the Republican field on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.

How did one faith-based demographic come to wield so much power? The answer is basic math – and passion.

“Relatively few people participate in the Iowa caucuses, so it’s ideal for a group of highly committed activists to have a big influence,” says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.

Unlike conventional primaries, Iowa’s caucuses, scheduled for Tuesday, require voters to attend what are essentially community get-togethers at which participants can speak publicly for candidates. It’s more cumbersome than pulling a lever in a voting both, and a relatively small minority of registered voters attend.

“Evangelical churches and interest groups have been able to generate that kind of activity,” Green says. “They’ve been active in Iowa for a long time, so a tradition has taken hold there.”

Rick Perry's long faith journey culminates in White House run

In 2008, evangelical Christians accounted for 60% of Republican caucus-goers. With just 119,000 Iowans participating in the GOP caucuses that year – high by historical standards – the bloc helped propel Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, to a first-place finish.

In previous election cycles, evangelicals accounted for a more modest share of the Iowa GOP electorate, but their ranks have nonetheless hovered around 40%.

That makes evangelical Iowans unusually influential even by the standards of the national Republican Party, in which evangelical Christians have constituted the base since Ronald Reagan was elected president.

From Carter to Bush

Despite the modern GOP-evangelical alliance, it was a Democrat who first tapped that power base in Iowa.

Jimmy Carter was the first presidential candidate in modern American politics to call himself a born-again Christian, and he spent long stretches in Iowa during his 1976 campaign. Finishing ahead of every candidate (“uncommitted” took first) there lent early momentum to a candidate who’d been virtually unknown nationally.

Before Carter, says Drake’s Dennis Goldford, “evangelicals didn’t participate in politics because it was seen as this “worldy, corrupting, evil thing, and you stayed away from it.”

Modern American evangelicalism emerged in the late 19th century, built around biblical literalism and an emphasis on human sin and redemption. The movement was largely a reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution and questions that modern science raised about biblical authority.

The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which struck down the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools, turned the evangelical movement into a national laughingstock and provoked an evangelical retreat from politics.

Carter, a Baptist Sunday School teacher, brought them back together.

But many evangelicals wound up feeling betrayed by Carter’s liberalism, and Reagan’s courtship of first-generation Christian right leaders, as well as his conservative rhetoric on issues like abortion, sent hordes of evangelicals to the GOP.

In 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson finished second in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, putting Iowa evangelical power on the national map. Says Goldford: “They came out of nowhere.”

In the 1990s, with the rise of Robertson’s Christian Coalition, many evangelicals landed positions of power within the Iowa Republican Party. Catholics and other religious believers also became more active in the state GOP, raising the profile of issues like abortion and marriage, but they could not compete in number with the evangelicals.

Since then, Republican presidential hopefuls have tailored their messages to evangelical Iowans. When George W. Bush was asked which political philosopher had most influenced him in a debate before the 2000 Iowa caucus, he responded “Jesus.”

A diluted role?

In this election cycle, all the Republican presidential candidates have spoken deeply about their personal Christian faith while in Iowa, except for Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormons.

After spending considerable time in Iowa in 2008, much of it courting evangelicals, Romney placed second, far behind Huckabee. This time around, Romney has spent much less time here, skipping some major evangelical cattle calls and unleashing the ire of some powerful Christian activists.

Huntsman, for his part, has ignored Iowa to focus his efforts on New Hampshire, which votes a week after Iowa.

A CNN/TIME/ORC poll last week found that Romney had the support of 16% of likely evangelical caucus-goers in Iowa, compared to 22% for Santorum, 18% for Ron Paul and 14% for Gingrich, who had much higher evangelical support in earlier Iowa polls.

“Romney’s campaign has a very deliberate plan to snub social conservatives,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a key conservative group in the state.

“If Romney becomes the nominee,” Scheffler says, “95% of his volunteers will need to come from the conservative base. If he’s dissed them through the caucus process, it’s going to be challenging for him to get these people to campaign for him to become president.”

Scheffler is a testament to evangelical influence in the caucuses; his group has hosted caucus trainings in churches across the state in the run-up to January 3.

Most evangelical leaders insist their skepticism of Romney is born of his past social liberalism. But some in-the-pews evangelicals, interviewed at a pair of Iowa evangelical churches on a recent Sunday, admitted to an anti-Mormon bias.

Many believe that Mormons – who, unlike traditional Christians, believe in holy books beyond the Bible and practice customs like posthumous proxy baptism – belong to a cult.

“A growing number of people are afraid to vote for him because they are not sure how his Mormonism will affect his presidency,” says Jonathan Meyer, a pastor at Grace Church in Des Moines. “And because he doesn’t talk about that.”

Other Iowan evangelicals say Romney’s Mormonism isn’t a deal-breaker. “We talked about it in my Bible study,” says Patrick Finnegan, 27, who attended a recent Romney rally wearing a blue “Romney supporter” T-Shirt. “And we said as long as he believes in Jesus Christ, and as long as he’s not an atheist, we support him. I just want someone who shares my belief in a higher power.”

Other Iowa evangelicals echoed that view, calling Romney a Christian.

One complicating factor in the evangelical equation is that the main alternative to Romney as a viable national candidate appears to be Gingrich. The former House speaker has strenuously courted evangelical leaders and aided last year’s successful campaign to unseat three pro-gay marriage Iowa judges but has admitted to personal moral failings, including an affair with his current wife while married to his second wife.

Many Iowa evangelicals say Gingrich has redeemed himself. “I appreciate Newt acknowledging that he needs forgiveness,” says Meyer, who speaks with a Bible tucked under his arm in the Christmas-tree bedecked lobby of Grace Church. “He didn’t have to address that.”

Others are less enthusiastic.

“There’s not enough attention being paid to Newt’s fall from grace,” says Beverly McLinden, 55, an Iowa evangelical who works in association management and attended the Des Moines Romney rally. “Romney’s family exemplifies family values, and you can’t discount that just because he’s a Mormon.”

Evangelical angst over Gingrich and Romney has helped fuel Santorum’s surge, with the former Pennsylvania senator receiving 16% support in the most recent CNN poll, putting him in third place, behind Romney and Paul.

No candidate had even 25% of evangelical support in the most recent poll, raising the possibility that Iowa’s evangelical vote will be pretty diluted this week.

“This vote is terribly critical,” says Ralph Reed, who leads the national Faith and Freedom Coalition. “But the irony is that with this many candidates all appealing to this constituency at the same time, the vote is likely to get spread out.”

‘Democrats are trying to strip God out’

If Iowa’s evangelicals disagree on whom to support, interviews with dozens of them reveal a striking consistency in the role their faith plays in shaping that decision.

Even as the economy and jobs consistently rank as top issues in the presidential race, many evangelical Iowans say they’re weighing the personal faith of the candidates and that they still care about social issues and honoring the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

“Most of the folks I’ve dealt with in the evangelical community always care about the economy and spending and taxes,” says Santorum, who has spent most of his time as a presidential candidate campaigning in Iowa. “But the priority issues that have always been up front are the moral, cultural issues.”

“They want to make sure that it’s someone who is comfortable in their skin to fight those battles,” says Santorum, a devout Catholic who has nonetheless landed on TIME’s list of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals.

Gail Johnson, a dentist’s assistant who was heading into Grace Church – a megachurch whose sanctuary is hung with giant Christmas wreaths and a back-lit cross – agrees.

“I have no clue who I’m voting for, other than that it will be a Republican,” she says. “Smaller government and no abortion are the two big issues for me.”

Grace Church is the kind of congregation where worshippers take notes during the sermon, which on this Sunday focused on the importance of believing in Jesus’ virgin birth.

Sue Cornelius-Leibrand, an accountant who also attends Grace, says she would prefer “a president who believes in the same things that I do.”
“I know they won’t agree with everything,” says Cornelius-Leibrand, who wears diamond earrings and carries a stylish black bag and a leather-bound bible with a pink strap. “But the main things, like life beginning at conception and marriage between a man and a wife.”

Many evangelicals cite what they see as religion’s shrinking role in the public square as another concern. “This nation was founded on Christian ethics and that’s what made the country great,” says Sue Raibikis, a pharmaceutical sales rep and an evangelical Christian who attended the Romney rally. “Democrats are trying to strip God out of the country.”

Republican candidates are addressing those concerns in different ways. Gingrich talks about stopping a secular war on religion. Perry gives Christian testimony, telling worshippers at Des Moines’ Point of Grace Church on a recent Sunday: “There’s a hole in one’s heart that can only be filled by one thing.”

Santorum and Bachmann are emphasizing their voting records on hot buttons like abortion, saying other candidates just talk about these issues.

The jockeying introduced a major shot of religion to the presidential race from the very start, a contribution that some political experts argue threatens to curtail Iowa’s influence in the nominating process.

“The strength of evangelicals in the Iowa Republican Party could turn into a weakness if they are seen as so strong that Republicans around the nation begin to discount the results of the caucuses,” says Drake University’s Goldford.

“You’re beginning to see some of that – McCain chose not to campaign here last time,” he says. “And Romney hasn’t been here much this time.”

The state’s track record for picking Republican winners is mixed. Huckabee, for instance, won big in Iowa but lost his party’s nomination. But George W. Bush and Bob Dole won Iowa and went on to the GOP nomination.

The Republican primary calendar, if nothing else, will strengthen the influence of Iowa and its evangelicals, argues Green, of the University of Akron.

New Hampshire, with fewer evangelicals, follows Iowa in primary voting. But the next in line is South Carolina, where 60% of voters in the last Republican presidential primary identified as evangelicals.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Iowa • Michele Bachmann • Mike Huckabee • Mitt Romney • Newt Gingrich • Politics • Rick Santorum

soundoff (837 Responses)
  1. boater

    Evangelicals: Religious Nutjob Hypocrites who think they know what's best for everyone. Hint: Jesus would have been a liberal, by definition–NOT a conservative Republican. (Jesus was about helping OTHERS–not helping HIMSELF). They are weak-minded individuals who have fallen for yet another cult just like their own: the GOP. Why do we let them control OUR country?

    January 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Bob

      Agreed. Jesus was much more of a liberal. Just shows how brainwashed people have become, or just
      how biblical illiterate they have become.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • SPLAT!~

      Why do we allow them to control our country? Because they're organized and meet weekly on Sundays!~

      January 1, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • SurRy

      Jesus would have been one of the 99ers camped out in the cold and rain. Not sipping champagne from a balcony over Wall Street with the 1%.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  2. Bob

    Jesus: "My kingdom is no part of this world. " I often wondered how any TRUE follower of Jesus
    would want to become a poitician. It's goes against everything Jesus taught.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • boater

      Exactly.... And the GOP is closer to being Taliban than "Christian." Jesus was there to help OTHERS–the GOP and the "leaders" of these "christian" wannabe's are into helping THEMSELVES. But, both the GOP and the evangelicals are all about drawing the weak-minded into their cult and getting them to give up everything for their "leader."

      January 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • rach

      Jesus taught alot of not so nice things. He should not be anyone's moral compass.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  3. gravis

    I'm surprised these fat, government-subsidized, teabag farmers can stop fornicating with their barnyard animals long enough to vote

    January 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • moi

      Iowa? Farmers? Fat? Someone's real bitter that IOWA IS THE RICHEST STATE IN THE COUNTRY!!! Heck ya, the government gives the whole state money! There's gold in every ear of corn, insurance policy (because Iowa is one ot the top Insurance Industries in this country) and the NUMBER ONE State Fair!!! California gets a kick back too! They consume most of our Tofu since it's made out of soy. I am in Iowa and enjoying all the riches you mention!!!!

      January 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  4. romeo

    not a single black face

    January 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • SPLAT!~

      Are you refering to the field of candidates?~

      January 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  5. mjbrin

    okay so this article still didn't explain why they have so much clout......except, maybe, the media gives it to them......anyhoo....i was taught to give to God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's.......so when the Evangelicals can explain that to me better i will listen to them....until then they have no clout

    January 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • SurRy


      January 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  6. Mennonknight

    I am a born again Christian who is a dual citizen of Canada and US.
    He was born into a poor family. Dad was an immigrant who left when he was still young. He was raised by a single mother who died when he was a teen. Faith was not part of his life until grandma started to raise him. Grandma was an amazing woman of faith. He went from an average student to an above average with scholarships.
    He moved for University and started dating an amazing woman. She was from a rich and successful family with strong church ties and family values. He started attending her church that was well known for social justice and he made a personal commitment to faith in Christ.
    Upon graduating with a law degree a the top of his class from his prestigious university he started working with the poor of a major city.
    Question: Who I talking about?

    January 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Peppermint Patty

      "Who AM I talking about" ?

      Why, Barak Obama, of course.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • ChicagoLoop

      Is it Barak Obama about whom you are speaking?

      January 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  7. Robyn Harris

    "He shares my values" That's the new code words for
    "He will enact laws to force non-belivers to bow down before my church."
    How very Taliban-like.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • mjbrin


      January 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • boater


      January 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  8. mightyfudge

    No one knows what happens when we die, and anyone claiming such knowledge is a liar who probably wants your money (or in this case, your vote.)

    January 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • SpringBranch

      Spoken like someone claiming there is no afterlife. So if I believe there is, then that makes me a liar? You will tell me to prove it, I will say to prove your point...faith is faith.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • boater

      Spring, spoken by someone who NEEDS to believe in an afterlife because they can't believe in THEMSELVES.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Valleywalker

      Boater,that's just it, we believe in more than just ourselves, and that's why we truly care about others and what happens to them.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • boater

      Then you wouldn't be following these GOP Taliban or your religious leaders who only care about how much money THEY can make. Prove to us that they care about others–when you can convince them to give up their tax exempt status and contribute to things like the healthcare of OTHERS, THEN come back here and tell us about believing in helping others....

      January 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  9. william

    This article is the perfect example of why we need to move away from making ones personal beliefs a part of the nomination process. Or if we're going to continue, as it sadly appears, at least give proper respect to those who's claim that their faith, or lack thereof, is off limits.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  10. Mary

    How about our media begins monitoring the active GOP campaigning that takes places in evangelical churches? I find it disgusting that several GOP candidates are repeatedly visiting mega-churches in Iowa as a deliberate campaign strategy. Churches that host these candidates should immediately lose their non-profit status. We live in scarey times when people care more about candidates' religious affiliation than we do about their experience and credentials to be president. Religious affiliation appears to be a litmus test for people who don't want (or are unable) to think critically about more important issues like the economy, war, and support for public programs (education, social security, etc.). Pathetic!

    January 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • PulTab

      Well said.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • mjbrin

      need a like button!

      January 1, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • boater

      Yep.... But, IMHO, NO church should have a non-profit status. It's just another way of avoiding paying taxes and sticking it to the rest of the country. If they were REALLY into helping others, they'd pay their fair share so others would not have to pay so much....

      January 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • william

      I agree, Mary. I've frankly never agreed with the tax-free status of churches, particularly those which profile high-dollar "preachers" strutting about exhorting the flock to give mighttily to the church, for God;s graces you know, while living lives of splendor and decadence. The tax free status of any church, or any enterprise for that matter, means higher taxes for the rest of us, and forces us to back-handidly support them with our cash.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  11. Johnnnn

    Evangelical "Christians" are much more of a menace to our life and government than sharia law will EVER be in this country.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Mellowme


      January 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  12. Matthew

    My god these people are stupid....Ability to DO THE JOB is the most important thing, not believing in some mythical book written 2,000 years ago...

    January 1, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • ChicagoLoop

      I concur.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  13. Carlin123

    These so called Christians are just as power hungry as the fat cats on wall street. Anyone this fervent in their beliefs is obviously dangerous.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  14. Alex

    I consider it mixed up when the religious people have the power and the rational thinking are thought of as the crazies

    January 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • chris

      Amen... (sorry couldnt help myself)

      January 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  15. Beastbreath

    Religion has no place in government. Morals, yes, and those can be heavily influenced by one's religion. But keep that religion to yourself! Any candidate spouting "God this" and "God that" has no business as president.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Da King

      This country was formed on Bible principles and this should continue. Religion is of man. Even Jesus is opposed to religion. If your church is telling you must eat fish on friday's, this mean the church's fishing business is down.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • boater

      No, our government was more formed based on the Ten Commandments, not the Bible.... The Ten Commandments are laws–laws that really aren't religious–they apply to everyone. The Bible is a mixture of childrens' stories that some people have taken to be fact.... In 2000 years, will they be worshipping Elmo?

      January 1, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • SpringBranch

      Bible mixture of childrens stories? Have you read it. Or any of it?

      January 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Hear This

      " our government was more formed based on the Ten Commandments, not the Bible"

      No, our government was formed based on what the founders had gleaned from POLITICAL philosophies from all over the world. Perhaps a *couple* of the 10 Commandments agree with those philosophies, but that's it...

      January 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  16. Leni

    The farther we get from our Christian heritage, the more chaotic our society becomes. Christianity is foundational to western civilization, it informed all our laws, ethics, and morals. Trying to deny that now smacks of arrogant children, dismissing and disrespecting the very belief system that is responsible for our prosperous and civilized society. Compare how women, children and animals are treated in Christian based societies to non Christian. Christian based societies are hands down the most civilized, fair and advanced in existence. The USSR is a prime example of an officially atheistic society. They had 7 decades of it and it proved disastrous. Time and time again an empire has risen or fallen on it's moral strength, and that doesn't exist in a vacuum. Throw away Christianity and something will replace it for sure, and it won't be anything good.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • bigfoot

      Funny. In this society we are advanced DESPITE the Christians.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • ChicagoLoop

      Leni, I respectfully disagree with you: Western civilization was not founded upon Christianity. People fled to the United States in search of being liberated from religion, particularly from the Church of England, thus the phrase written by Thomas Jefferson, "...the wall of separation between church and state" was established within the law of the United States to prevent religious ideologies from influencing the laws governing the democratic society.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  17. bigfoot

    The difference between me and evangelicals is that MY political agenda doesn't spring from a set of moral codes I am trying to jam down someone's throat.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Bob O.

      Yeah, those 10 commandments are a pain.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • bigfoot

      Bob. You can get back to me when you actually live up to those 10 commandments.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  18. Carlin123

    The split between to much God and not enough is a real problem, especially when you have these powerful christian groups helping elect people into government to push their beliefs on everyone. How about an atheist president?

    January 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  19. Facts


    Need to watch this,

    January 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Da King

      No I don't.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  20. tonks1

    Christian Coalition does NOT include Catholics, despite what the article says. We are not evangelicals who think that the world was made in 7 days and that dinosaurs didn't exist, and yes we do believe in adaptation and can also believe in science and evolution while still believing in our religion. We, are not hypocrites! If anything, we believe that religion has been hijacked by politics, and God would have no part in corporate greed whatsoever!!! There needs to be more of a call of sacrifice in American culture, live a bit more below our means so that others may survive. What do you think the Romans, ah, I mean Wall Street would say about this? Its harder for a rich man to enter into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Those that have means, need to be responsible and rebalance this country!

    January 1, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • bigfoot

      Those views border DANGEROUSLY on liberal ideals.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • SpringBranch

      Assume you aren't speaking for all Catholics...Catholics believe in evolution and are not hypocritical? Right.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Da King

      That's right, man is god and the pope has judgement. Those silly Evangelicals believe in the God of the Bible. The Vatican put out a bible in 1970 buy no one reads it. Most don't know it exists. It's called the New American Bible. It's much like New King James. In stead of saying you must be born again (of the spirit of God by believing in Christ) it says you must be born from above. Close enough.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.