By Ben Goddard - 12/20/07 06:45 PM EST
Sometimes in newspaper photos he does look a little like the Hanna-Barbera Huckleberry Hound cartoon character that enjoyed a long television run in the middle of the last century.
So it may be no surprise that the thin network of home-school teachers and evangelical Christians who began talking up former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) a year ago often found their audiences confused. “Huckleberry? Who’s he?” was the most common response.
Well, everyone in Iowa knows who Mike Huckabee is today. He’s the former dark horse who may well pull off a victory in the Iowa caucuses. He’s also an ordained Baptist minister who can weave his faith into his political pitches with an ease that makes even his fellow Hope, Ark., native Bill Clinton seem clumsy.
That comfort with religion has resonated well with Iowa voters. Over 50 percent of Republican caucus-goers are evangelical Christians, and they respond well to his Baptist-speak. The other former Republican governor locked in a tight battle for support in Iowa, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, also talks about his faith a lot. But on him it seems a bit more awkward, and to those Midwesterners his Mormon religion remains a little foreign.
Coming from Huckabee, talk of faith and moral values fits as well as the sweater he wears in a recent Christmas message television spot. Ever-attentive media watchers have suggested that Huckabee sneaked a subliminal Christian message into the spot with what appears to be a cross over his shoulder. “Pshaw!” Huckabee responds — they just ad-libbed the spot in front of a bookcase. OK, I’ll stipulate that the standard-issue background for a quick-and-dirty production is a bookcase. Even a bookcase with strategically placed Christmas ornaments. But if I was going to film a commercial with a Baptist minister-governor-presidential candidate it would make a lot of sense to position the camera so there was a subtle Christian symbol in the background. That’s just smart messaging. The people who are supposed to get the gag will — and they’ll easily imagine this preacher in the bully pulpit of the White House.
That’s the real message driving the Huckabee campaign to a lead in many, if not most, Iowa polls; a surge in New Hampshire, where even a second-place finish to the governor from next door will be impressive; and a lead in South Carolina in the latest CNN poll. Americans, and Republicans in particular, know in their hearts that religious beliefs inform and guide the choices people make in their daily lives. That includes presidents. In times like these a lot of people feel more comfortable with someone who turns for guidance to a Bible rather than a binder full of polls.
Over the past three decades evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have gravitated to the Republican Party. Since 2000 there has been an almost complete alignment between evangelicals and the GOP. In the last presidential election, 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush. Our born-again president had mastered the art of weaving his faith into his political rhetoric without sounding like a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson. Huckabee does even better.
Now, it is still a long road to the nomination, and none of the other candidates are conceding to the preacher just yet. Romney still seems to hold the edge in New Hampshire, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is executing a flanking move that could put him in contention in the Granite State and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is executing a well-funded late-state strategy that could upset the GOP race should Huckabee, Romney and McCain produce a muddled field after the first round of caucuses and primaries.
But what if Huckabee does pull off a miracle win? Are non-evangelical voters — moderate Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats — willing to elect another true believer to the White House? There are many, ranging from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Republican strategist and commentator Kevin Phillips, who believe the current president’s literal Christian worldview and his absolutist rhetoric have had far too much influence on American foreign policy. Certainly it has contributed to a perception among foreign nations that we have a crusader in the White House. Huckabee has been somewhat critical of Bush’s conduct of foreign policy, suggesting he’d cooperate more and preach less. To build a winning coalition outside his fundamentalist base, he’s going to have to make that message clear to Americans. We’re just not ready for another Christian soldier in the White House.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org