Huckabee: Evangelical Christians Now Have a Chance to Lead GOP

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.).

Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor who heads the Orlando megachurch Northland, A Church Distributed, said his congregants are particularly receptive to Huckabee's message because the candidate combines economic and religious populism.

"Especially with the economic insecurity people are feeling, they like that there's a leader who, because of his religious belief, really wants to care for everybody," said Hunter, who recently announced that he is backing Huckabee in the upcoming Florida primary. "It's about evangelicals who are willing to care for people who are hurting, who are marginalized."

Huckabee's aides have been eager to dismiss the notion that he is only a Christian candidate, and Huckabee complained Saturday in Grand Rapids that debate questions about his faith are of "an unconstitutional nature," since the Constitution forbids a religious test for potential officeholders.

Nevertheless, Huckabee's core constituency remains conservative Christians. At the Michigan pastors' meeting, he encouraged them to "mobilize people of like mind and spirit" by tapping their e-mail lists and phone lists. That strategy helped him in Iowa, where about 80 percent of his voters identified themselves as "born again" or "evangelical." His views on many policy issues, such as health care, are not specific, but he supports constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and abortion, and has suggested that he would be comfortable displaying the Ten Commandments in the White House.

In South Carolina, where Huckabee will appear on Sunday at two church services, rallies are filled with people who tell him "I'm praying for you" when he shakes their hand. On Friday evening, after a long day of campaigning, he stopped at a basketball game of Christian home-schooled children in St. John's, a small town in western Michigan.

The success of Huckabee's candidacy has suggested that many evangelical Christians no longer look to figures such as televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson. Robertson, who finished a strong second in Iowa's 1988 caucus behind the power of Christian activists, endorsed Giuliani this time, to little effect among religious conservatives.

Ed Rollins, Huckabee's campaign chairman, said he thinks there is "some frustration in the evangelical community" that electoral victories have not provided more results on issues important to them.

Fulton Sheen, a conservative religious activist in Michigan who switched his support from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to Huckabee on Saturday, said, "There is little difference in faith and values issues" between Huckabee and President Bush. And in interviews, many Huckabee supporters express disappointment with Bush, but on issues such as the war rather than religion.

Instead, what Huckabee seems to have tapped into is what he is himself: a traditional Republican who advocates keeping taxes low and maintaining a strong military, but with strong roots in the social conservative movement.

It makes sense, said GOP pollster David Winston, that Huckabee has established a "Christian brand" in a party in which evangelicals will represent the majority of voters in some states.

But to win the presidency, Winston said, Huckabee would need to establish a following among the 75 percent of the electorate who are not white evangelicals.

"If he's going to win, he's going to figure out how to do that," Winston said.

Eilperin reported from Washington.

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