MANNING, S.C. — Mike Huckabee journeyed to this rural hamlet recently to preach. Huckabee is white, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, yet here he was standing at the pulpit of a predominantly black church delivering a sermon about the nation’s race problem.
“Folks, I’m going to be honest with you — we don’t have a skin problem in this country; we have a sin problem in this country,” Huckabee said.
“All right! All right!” congregants responded. There were shouts of “Amen!” A woman in the second pew banged a tambourine.
“I hear all the time, ‘We need to have a conversation in this country about race,’ ” Huckabee continued. “If we have all the conversations in the world, we’re not going to change anything. It’s not a conversation we need; it is a conversion we need, to be reconciled with God.”
This was an unusual message at an unusual campaign stop for a Republican presidential candidate, but it is part of Huckabee’s strategy. In a sprawling field of 16 contenders for the GOP nomination, each candidate is trying to find a niche — and Huckabee, who polls in the second tier, thinks he may find one with black voters.
Here in South Carolina, which holds one of the earliest presidential nominating contests, as well as in a string of other Southern states whose primaries quickly follow on the calendar, the primaries are open — meaning any registered voter, regardless of party affiliation, can vote in the Republican contest.
The strategy requires a careful balance for a candidate such as Huckabee, who has also been courting white evangelicals and has drawn attention at times for sharp attacks on President Obama, who is reviled by many conservatives but is beloved among African Americans as the country’s first black commander in chief. This week, for instance, Huckabee claimed that the Iran nuclear deal would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven,” promoting ridicule from Obama, who said Huckabee’s comments reflected a pattern of rhetoric from GOP candidates “that would be considered ridiculous, if it wasn’t so sad.”
And Huckabee risks angering some Republicans if they see him as inviting Democrats to meddle in the GOP nomination battle. In 2014, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) wooed black voters into that state’s open primary to stave off a tea-party challenger — securing his reelection while sparking a bitter intraparty battle that left some conservatives feeling alienated.
But Huckabee thinks he can rely on his Christian faith to make a special connection with some African American voters, drawing on biblical values shared by religious blacks and whites. He did so with some success in Arkansas, where exit polls from his 1998 gubernatorial race show that he won a 48 percent share of the black vote, which is unusually large for a Republican.
There were signs in Manning that Huckabee, at a minimum, will find a friendly audience. After the former governor led a prayer for Tricia Bouttry, a black congregant who is battling breast cancer, she said, “I didn’t know anything about him, but his speech was so uplifting and his prayer was so heartfelt, I cried.
“I’m a Democrat, but he would have my vote,” said Bouttry, 51, a mental health worker. “I want somebody who’s spiritual in the White House — a pastor that knows the word as president.”
Other Republican candidates have been making overtures to black voters, too. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) has given speeches at historically black colleges like Howard University and has campaigned in urban centers like Detroit. This month, former Texas governor Rick Perry gave a widely praised speech on race in which he said that too many blacks have been left behind by the economic recovery and that the GOP had “lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln” by alienating blacks.
Despite their outreach, however, Republicans have had difficulty trying to appeal to black voters. GOP candidates, including Huckabee, were criticized as having a slow and timid response to calls to remove the Confederate flag following the Charleston, S.C., church massacre in June — although most ultimately supported Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s successful push to do so.
In 2012, blacks were the most lopsided demographic group, with 93 percent voting for Obama’s reelection to 6 percent for Mitt Romney, according to exit polls.
In the 2016 race, Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has been highlighting issues she hopes will drive a wedge between Republicans and African Americans, such as efforts by GOP governors and lawmakers to restrict voting rights in their states.
The dynamic suggests a steep challenge ahead for Huckabee, who in his first presidential run in 2008 narrowly lost the South Carolina primary to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) but this time sees his best hope in upending the traditional demographics of GOP politics in South Carolina.
Huckabee said he is devoting considerable time to making connections with black congregations.
When he attends a service, he said, he offers more than the quick wave hello and “God talk” that many churchgoers might hear from a typical visiting politician. He sits through two-hour services — bowing his head in prayer, tapping his feet to gospel music and cheering on praise dancers — and delivers 30-minute sermons, as he did here on a recent Sunday at Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church and plans to do again at other black churches.
“People in African American churches are not to be taken for fools,” Huckabee said in an interview. “They’re not immune to having people hustle them. And so if a person thinks they can just show up at the churches around election time and sing a hymn with them — no, that’s so phony.”
At Rock Hill Missionary, Huckabee talked about growing up “dirt poor” during integration in Hope, Ark., also the birthplace of former president Bill Clinton and a town Huckabee described as half white, half black. He said he learned as a child never to judge other people.
Huckabee recalled in the interview that “it would’ve been real easy for me to say, ‘I’m not as good as those kids. They live in better houses, they have nicer clothes, they get to go to camp, they have nice cars, they have air conditioning in their homes, they have carpet on their floors.’ But my parents always said, ‘Son, nobody’s better than you . . . and you’re not any better than anybody else.’”
In his mid-20s, Huckabee became pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, Ark. Immanuel had been a white church, Huckabee said, until he met a black teenager — “a young man of Christ” — who asked to join. Huckabee let him in.
“Folks were so mad at me. I had death threats,” Huckabee recalled in his sermon. “I said, ‘I will not represent a church that will not welcome everyone.’ ”
Huckabee said one of his finest moments as governor came in 1997, on the steps of Little Rock Central High School, where he and Bill Clinton marked the 40th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine by symbolically opening the school doors to the nine black students who in 1957 had been forcibly denied entry to the all-white school.
Huckabee preached in Manning at the invitation of Pastor Leon Winn, an active Republican who last year ran unsuccessfully against Rep. James E. Clyburn (D).
After acknowledging Huckabee in the front pew, Winn said from the pulpit, “I don’t know if you know, this is a black church with a black preacher.” That drew warm laughter from the congregation, which on this day included a few dozen white Republican activists who had come to see Huckabee.
When the service concluded, Nathaniel Pugh, 55, a black man who works as a heavy-equipment operator, greeted Huckabee and posed for a picture with him.
“I’m a Democrat, but I might cross the line to vote for him,” Pugh said afterward. “We can talk till we’re blue in the face, but until our hearts get right, there still will be racism. For Governor Huckabee to come into our little town and talk about this, that’s huge. He got my attention.”