By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Mike Huckabee has cast his candidacy as a chance for evangelical Christians to elect one of their own, but so far, his brethren have not fully joined him.
This should be the ideal place for the former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister. About 70 miles from the Arkansas border, it is one of the centers of the country's evangelical movement. It is home to several Christian colleges, including one that the late Jerry Falwell attended, as well as the headquarters of the Assemblies of God, an evangelical denomination. There is a church on every corner in this city of more than 150,000.
Yet at Central Bible College, three professors and a student discussing the presidential race sounded just like Republicans all over the country: confused about whom to support and dispirited with the GOP field. David Van Hal, one of the school's 600 students, said he favored Ron Paul's libertarian views; one professor liked John McCain; the other two didn't think McCain was a true conservative. One of them favored former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the other Huckabee.
"You feel like you're choosing between the lesser of two evils," said Steve Eutsler, who teaches public speaking. He said he was concerned about whether Huckabee could win and was not sure if McCain is committed to banning abortion. "There seems to be no obvious choice for evangelical Christians," he said.
None of them had a negative word about Huckabee's views, but they questioned whether he has enough money to win tomorrow's Missouri primary and broad enough appeal to win the general election. They had concerns about Romney's consistency on many issues, including abortion, as well as about his Mormon faith, and two questioned McCain's support of a bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The discussion mirrored what religious and nonreligious Republicans have said for months. That is not overly surprising given that, aside from evangelicals' stronger opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and their heavy church attendance, polls suggest the priorities of evangelical Christians are almost indistinguishable from those of other Republicans.
Still, they've been aggressively courted in this campaign because of how important they are for GOP candidates who want to win the White House. In 2004, about one of every four voters was an evangelical Protestant, and 80 percent voted for President Bush. In contests in Iowa and South Carolina this year, more than half of voters called themselves "evangelical" or "born again," a pattern that is likely to hold in many of the Southern states that will vote tomorrow, including Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee.
Huckabee has not won a primary since Iowa in part because he has not been able to expand his base beyond evangelical Christians. But he also has not won because he has been unable to capture an equal number of evangelical voters. In Iowa, Huckabee won 46 percent of evangelicals, but in Florida and Michigan he and Romney ran about even among evangelicals.
"He's really a good person, but I don't think he could get two votes in Chicago," said Paul Tinlin, a former pastor who lives in Springfield and was discussing the presidential race after attending services at Central Assembly, one of the largest churches here. "He's too Southern."
Winning all the evangelicals in these states is complicated for any candidate because they are not monolithic, in religious practice or otherwise. Springfield is a hotbed for Assembly of God congregations, which speak in tongues, unlike many of the Southern Baptist denominations in Alabama and Arkansas. California, New York, Illinois and several other Super Tuesday states have huge nondenominational churches whose services sometimes more closely resemble rock concerts, with live bands and younger congregants.
Politically, the evangelical movement seems to be in the midst of a generational split, as older figures such as televangelist Pat Robertson decline in influence. Vince Medina, who teaches Hebrew here, said: "I don't give money to them. I don't listen to them."
Huckabee, a former leader of the Southern Baptists in Arkansas, plays a guitar and is friendly with Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life" and pastor of the large, nondenominational Saddleback Church in Southern California. He has links to many in the Christian conservative movement and is expected to do well in places like Springfield.
But given a choice of candidates who all more or less oppose same-sex marriage and abortion and have different strengths and weaknesses, Huckabee is unlikely to get the kind of support among evangelicals that could make him a true contender for the GOP nomination.
"We're tired of being labeled one-issue voters," Eutsler said, noting that the war on terror is just as important to him as abortion.