Huckabee: Evangelical Christians Now Have a Chance to Lead GOP

Touting his presidential candidacy, Mike Huckabee tries to rally support from social conservatives in Michigan.
Touting his presidential candidacy, Mike Huckabee tries to rally support from social conservatives in Michigan. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
By Perry Bacon Jr. and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 13, 2008

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., Jan. 12 -- Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee touted his candidacy Saturday as a chance for evangelical Christians to lead the Republican Party rather than just support its candidates.

"I don't presume that you automatically support me because of a common faith," Huckabee told a group of more than 100 conservative pastors. "I know I have to earn that. But I also recognize that there is a unique kind of opportunity. For a long time, those of us who are people of faith are asked to support candidates who would come and talk to us. But rarely has there been one who comes from us."

Huckabee's comments were the latest attempt by the former Baptist preacher to rally support from social conservatives by advocating a larger role for them within the GOP.

Last month in Iowa, Huckabee noted the criticism against him for supporting tax increases while governor of Arkansas, and he said the "Washington establishment" was opposed to his candidacy in a party where social conservatives often do not wield the same power as do small-government conservatives.

"Many of us who have been Republicans out of conviction . . . the social conservatives," he told reporters, "were welcomed in the party as long as we sort of kept our place, but Lord help us if we ever stood forward and said we would actually like to lead the party."

John A. Schmalzbauer, the Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University, said Huckabee is practicing "a kind of politics with identity" that will resonate with evangelicals.

"It's saying, 'You've been shut out. You've voted for people in the past who've said they represent you. Why not get somebody that's one of you?' " Schmalzbauer said. "It's a kind of religious populism that goes along with economic populism."

But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a prominent supporter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), suggests that, while evangelicals like Huckabee, they are looking for "the whole package."

"People of faith want a candidate who can beat radical Islam," Graham said, touting McCain's war experience.

In appearances here and in South Carolina on Saturday, the next two states in the GOP nomination calendar, Huckabee repeatedly advocated a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, telling the pastors that "life is in the balance." Both McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani oppose such an amendment.

Though Huckabee is competing in Michigan, his strategy relies on a win next Saturday in South Carolina, a state with a strong evangelical population but also a sizable contingent of veterans, a group long courted by McCain. Huckabee then needs a strong showing Jan. 29 in Florida, another state with a strong social conservative base but also with many moderates who could support Giuliani.

In trying to garner support from those who are called Reagan Democrats and from Republicans dissatisfied with the Bush administration, Huckabee is increasingly touting his working-class bona fides through critiques of growing corporate wealth that are reminiscent of the stump speech of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.).

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