Huckabee Taps Renewed Fervor Of Evangelicals


By: Wall Street Journal

By LAURA MECKLER and VALERIE BAUERLEIN

Evangelical voters, dispirited with their options in the Republican presidential field for much of the year, are feeling new energy and intensity as they flock to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. And with their support, Mr. Huckabee’s campaign is soaring to heights that seemed unimaginable just a month ago.

The turnaround is personified by evangelicals Valerie and Larry Domagalski, who waited more than an hour recently to greet Mr. Huckabee after a speech in Greenville, S.C. When they finally got their chance, Mr. Domagalski looked Mr. Huckabee in the eye: “We’ve been praying for you,” he said. “We know this is entirely in God’s hands, but we’re continuing to pray for you.”

Mr. Domagalski, who says he has never been active in politics before, now regularly emails close to 100 friends and colleagues encouraging them to vote for Mr. Huckabee.

The candidate’s quick rise is a vivid demonstration of the power social conservatives continue to wield in Republican politics. It also illustrates the bloc’s evolution. Grass-roots churchgoers no longer necessarily follow their national leadership.

“The leaders may have committed to someone [else], but their followers are flooding” to Mr. Huckabee, says Mike Campbell, his state campaign chairman in South Carolina. Mr. Campbell says some evangelical leaders who endorsed other candidates earlier this year “are calling now to say, ‘Man, I wish I’d have waited.’ ”

For much of the 2008 campaign, the clout of evangelicals — a driving force in Republican politics from Ronald Reagan in 1980 through George W. Bush in 2004 — appeared to have dwindled. They greeted the party’s early leaders in the presidential race — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain — with ambivalence or even antipathy.

Mr. Huckabee, meanwhile, was regarded as an also-ran. When his poll numbers began taking off just after Thanksgiving, he had few high-profile endorsements, aside from that of TV star Chuck Norris. Now, Mr. Huckabee is the clear leader in Iowa, after trailing Mr. Romney there since the summer, and also leads in South Carolina. Recent national polls show him a close second or even tied with former New York Mayor Giuliani.

Mr. Huckabee’s gains are threatening to shift once again the political balance between evangelicals and the rest of the Republican coalition of social and economic conservatives, Wall Street executives and national-security hawks, whose agendas have come into conflict in recent years.

While Mr. Giuliani has tried to rebuild the coalition around security and economics, playing down social issues, Mr. Huckabee is tinkering with it in a different way. By talking about economic hardship and bashing free trade, he combines his appeal to religious voters with outreach to so-called Reagan Democrats — working-class families viewed as socially conservative but economically liberal.

Over the weekend, Mr. Huckabee took on his party’s national-security hawks with an essay in Foreign Affairs, blasting “the Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality.” While all the other top-tier Republicans have embraced President Bush’s aggressive foreign policy, Mr. Huckabee wrote that the country “needs to change its tone and attitude, open up and reach out.”

Mr. Huckabee’s approach to economics and foreign policy mirrors a broader change in the political outlook of evangelicals. A new generation of leaders has begun to replace some of the old guard. Many of the new breed, like Rick Warren, pastor of the mammoth Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., are either nonpolitical or interested in a range of issues — such as poverty, the environment and AIDS in Africa — that go well beyond abortion and homosexuality.

“Younger pastors may very well bring in things like protection of environment as God’s creation” to the political mix, says Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In addition, disappointment with Mr. Bush, both for his failure to enact some of their priorities and over the Iraq war, has eroded some evangelicals’ enthusiasm for Republican politics.

Mr. Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor who quotes readily from the Bible, is working hard to capitalize on the new evangelical spirit. Among his tools: grass-roots organizing, television advertising and targeted messaging to reach evangelicals. And a growing number of evangelical Republicans have embraced him.

Their support aside, the Huckabee campaign faces serious questions about its ability to win the nomination. It has raised only a fraction of the money its rivals have. Mr. Huckabee had $650,000 in cash on hand at the end of September, compared with his chief Iowa rival Mr. Romney’s $9 million. And it isn’t clear if the campaign has the organizational muscle to get supporters to the Iowa caucuses.

Still, Mr. Huckabee seems to be gaining momentum. In Des Moines, Iowa, Pastor Rex Deckard of Calvary Apostolic Church noticed a change around mid-November. At a meeting with about 25 ministers, he reminded the group that Jan. 3 was caucus day. “Remember to vote for Huckabee!” someone shouted out, and the room broke into applause. “I thought, ‘Wow, there seems to be something building,’ ” Mr. Deckard says.

Mr. Deckard gave Mr. McCain a serious look but initially decided to support social conservative Sen. Sam Brownback. When Mr. Brownback dropped out of the race, Mr. Deckard moved to the Huckabee camp, as is clear to his congregation: His briefcase and car now sport Huckabee stickers. Looking around, he realized others were coming to the same place.

For more than a year, social conservatives have been searching for a candidate, says Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio, who isn’t aligned with any of the campaigns. At first, they thought it would be George Allen of Virginia, until he lost his race for re-election to the Senate last year and decided against a presidential run. Next, many thought it would be Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, until conservatives grew uncomfortable with his previous support for abortion and gay rights. Then their eyes turned to former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, until his campaign seemed to fizzle. Into the void stepped Mr. Huckabee, previously dismissed as unelectable.

“His success is a representation of the failure of those before him,” says Mr. Fabrizio. “Politics abhors a vacuum.”

The Huckabee campaign is working to harness social conservatives’ energy in Iowa and South Carolina, where the evangelical vote is significant. The campaign’s goal is to mobilize evangelicals as Mr. Bush so successfully did. But while President Bush had the resources to spend millions of dollars in his 2004 re-election bid to identify evangelicals’ preferences and turn out the vote, Mr. Huckabee’s campaign couldn’t even afford to buy the $30,000 list of previous Republican caucus goers in Iowa.

Even so, the Huckabee troops are working to develop a grass-roots network. In Iowa, Matt Reisetter directs a coalition helping pastors figure out how much political activity they can engage in without violating the law. The group also is encouraging supporters to recruit other pastors and precinct captains to speak up for Mr. Huckabee on caucus night. The Huckabee camp is hoping to put together a similar effort in South Carolina.

The candidate’s message is also being tailored for his audiences. A TV ad that ran first in Iowa and is now airing in South Carolina calls him a “Christian leader” and emphasizes his unchanging views opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. “Faith doesn’t just influence me. It really defines me,” Mr. Huckabee says in the opening lines.

But that ad isn’t airing in New Hampshire, where Republicans tend to be more concerned with economics than social issues. In fact, in a weekend of events in New Hampshire, Mr. Huckabee didn’t bring up abortion, marriage or religion unless asked about it. But at his rally in Greenville earlier this month, he spoke passionately about “the value of life” and issued a call to “protect marriage.” “Our worth comes from God,” he said.

Given all the hurdles his campaign faces, the evangelical movement faces a big question: What if Mr. Huckabee fails to win the nomination?

There could be considerable disappointment, and even anger, if supporters feel that Mr. Huckabee wasn’t treated fairly, says John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “They could return to their previous state of flux,” he says. At the same time, if they believe he got a fair shot, their involvement in the primary may fire up some people and give them a greater stake in the general election, he adds.

But evangelical leaders are warning that many will be unable to support a candidate they consider insufficiently devoted to their cause. Already, James Dobson of Focus on the Family has threatened to support an independent candidate if Mr. Giuliani gets the Republican nod.

“At most, they will pull the lever [for the Republican] and go home and take a shower,” says Janet Folger, a conservative radio talk-show host. “What they don’t do is the heavy lifting. They don’t pound in yard signs, make get-out-the-vote calls. You will have an energized, mobilized base for the Democratic candidate and a lackluster, half-hearted base [for the Republican] that will not do what needs to be done.”

For now, however, many evangelicals are relishing their revival. “We haven’t really had a candidate who represents us, a true conservative — not one that morphs depending on the circumstances or crowd,” says Mrs. Domagalski of South Carolina. “There’s been an explosion of people like me who have found Mike. We are so excited about this man.”

Write to Laura Meckler at laura.meckler@wsj.com and Valerie Bauerlein at valerie.bauerlein@wsj.com

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