'I'm curious: Is there anybody on the stage that does not . . . believe in evolution?"

That was the question put to the 10 GOP presidential hopefuls during a May 3 Republican presidential debate on MSNBC.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) already had said he did. But when the rest were asked the same question, three hands went up: those of Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Ah, the flood of facile jokes!:

Those Luddite Republicans!

They don't believe in evolution because, in their case, it didn't happen!

Et cetera. Hardy har har.

Three candidates do not a party make. But it was a telling moment for those wondering where the GOP is headed.

Why did these three, all of whom wish to be the leader of the most powerful country in history, say they did not believe in evolution? There might be thousands of reasons. Perhaps they misheard: "I'm just curious: Is there anyone on this stage who doesn't believe in elocution?" But two reasons are more likely:

(1) They really don't think evolution exists. As in, it's not happening and never did. We got here some other way. There's no evidence for it.

Uh, yeah, there is. Although technically a theory, Charles Darwin's version of the evolution of species is a theory-with-the-status-of-fact, robust and vigorous, demonstrated in living color each and every day in field and laboratory everywhere. No jury is "out." The verdict's in and everybody's gone home. Way home.

True, the theory can't say how life began. And we haven't traced every branch in the tree of life. We don't have to. A tree doesn't have to fall on us. Evolution is one of the most thrilling and miraculous stories - and one of the best told - ever. It's not something in question.

Nor is it a religious issue - for most people. A minority of Christians do belong to congregations that believe evolution is not how God created life. Some say Genesis is at odds with evolution. Their beliefs deserve respect, as beliefs, not science.

Many other Christians, however, hold views much closer to those of born-again Jimmy Carter, who, while president, said he believed evolution was the expression of God's will in creation. (Things sure have changed!) So here's another possible reason:

(2) These men raised their hands because they knew it would get them votes from religious conservatives.

Tancredo, Huckabee and Brownback know they need the Christian conservative vote to win the Republican nomination. Christian conservatives don't like Rudy Giuliani. They're lukewarm on John McCain, perplexed by Mitt Romney.

But any candidate who would ignore science to attract conservative votes has made a lousy calculation.

Truth is, few conservatives reject science. They fly airplanes, use cell phones, get vaccinated, leverage mass media to push their ideas.

So, while pundits are calling the evolution flap an embarrassment to the GOP, what it really is is a call to the Republican faithful: "We're in trouble. If we don't rally on the wedge issues now, by 2008, a Republican majority may seem as far away as the Planet of the Apes."