Huckabee's Bid for the Christian Right

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Nick Wass / AP

Mike Huckabee speaks at the Family Research Council's Washington Values Voter Summit, Saturday, October 20.

Correction Appended: October 26, 2007

The conflict has been brewing underneath the surface, but the results of the straw poll at Saturday's Values Voters Summit made it official: The real struggle in the 2008 Republican primaries will be not between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney or social conservatives and fiscal conservatives but between Christian Right leaders and the conservatives in the pews.

Coming off a heady week of endorsements from heavyweights in the Christian Right world, including Bob Jones III and Don Wilton, former president of the South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention, Mitt Romney technically won the straw poll with 1,585 of the total 5,576 votes cast. But it was former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who lit up the crowd with a fiery sermon as the last candidate to address the gathering. He took second place, just 30 votes behind Romney. When organizers broke the votes down into those cast online and those of summit attendees, the results revealed a true thrashing. In the tally of those present at the summit, Huckabee swamped his opponents, capturing 50% of the vote. By contrast, Romney was the choice of only 10% of on-site values voters.

The outcome was enough to give a serious scare to the G.O.P. front-runners. Religious conservatives are disproportionately represented in the Iowa caucuses and Huckabee has recently moved into second place in some Iowa polls. (A Rasmussen poll from Oct. 10-14 showed Huckabee in a tie for second with Fred Thompson, seven points behind Romney.) Huckabee is also benefiting from Kansas Senator Sam Brownback's withdrawal from the race, even though Brownback has not yet endorsed any of the remaining candidates. After his speech at the summit on Saturday, Huckabee told reporters that over the previous 24 hours, his Iowa offices "had a lot of traffic from key players in the Brownback campaign who are coming with us."

Huckabee's strong showing wasn't a complete surprise; he attracted attention in early August when he took second in the Ames straw poll. But that impressive finish wasn't followed by an surge of donations or endorsements. His approximately $1 million take in the third fund-raising quarter was the most he has raised so far, yet it was still only one-fifth the amount reported by libertarian long shot Ron Paul. And he has yet to break through outside of Iowa — in national polls, Huckabee tops out around 7%.

Candidates — especially those mired in the single digits — often compare themselves to David in the biblical battle against Goliath and the Philistines. The implication is usually that second- or third-tier candidates are more virtuous because they haven't sold out to become front-runners. Not surprisingly, the rhetorical appeal has a self-justifying tone that rarely works. But on Saturday, in the hands of Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, the David reference became a rallying cry that resonated with social conservatives.

From the moment he took the stage in the Washington Hilton's International Ballroom, Huckabee was in his element. The Arkansas contingent in the front of the hall went nuts, waving low-tech H-U-C-K-A-B-E-E placards. Unlike the other candidates, Huckabee was greeted by a standing ovation throughout the entire cavernous room. He settled in behind the lectern as if it were a pulpit, greeting the crowd "not as one who comes to you, but as one who comes from you."

When Pat Robertson ran for the Republican nomination in 1988, he went out of his way to downplay his identity as a religious leader, emphasizing instead his television network and other business ventures. Nearly 20 years later, it is impossible to listen to Mike Huckabee without picking up on his background of 15 years as a pastor. Huckabee is fond of saying that he's a "conservative — I'm just not angry about it." His mood is usually that of a perpetually cheery youth pastor who just might grab a guitar and rock out with the praise band if the spirit hits him. (Huckabee does in fact play bass guitar with his band, Capital Offense.) At the Values Voters Summit, however, Huckabee started off with more fire and brimstone than he has displayed thus far in the campaign, hitting all the red-meat conservative issues: Islamo-fascism (ignoring the threat "will get us killed"), immigration ("we need to build a fence") and abortion ("a Holocaust").

All good preachers know to give their congregations some breathing space before heading into the main point of their sermon. Huckabee used that rhythm as well with a story about the early 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday. And then he got down to business. Zinging his opponents, Huckabee said that social conservatives need a candidate who speaks "the language of Zion as a mother tongue." And challenging the Christian Right leaders who are lining up behind Romney and, to a lesser extent, candidates like Fred Thompson, he urged: "Let us not sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics."

Hitting his stride, Huckabee compared himself to "the prophets of old, the ones who spoke truth to power." And he set up an altar call for his audience, letting them know exactly what they could do as well to stand up to the powerful. In what has to be the first ever presidential candidate shout-out to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Huckabee made his case for the little guy. "It's a lot better to be with David than Goliath," he declared. Or with Elijah than 850 prophets of Baal. Or with Daniel and the lions than the Babylonians. The point was not lost on the crowd of Sunday school veterans: the Bible is, after all, jam-packed with stories of the seemingly weak who triumph, heroes who shock the naysayers.

"Don't ever let expediency or electability replace our principles," Huckabee urged the crowd. "Come on, Mike!" yelled a man in support. "That's right!" shouted out others.

After his speech, Huckabee was asked whether he was concerned about the disconnect between his showings in the straw polls and the unwillingness of Christian Right leaders to support his campaign. He shook his head. "I'll go with that great horde of people whose names nobody knows rather than the folks whose names everybody knows," Huckabee said. "Their votes are still just one."

Before the straw poll closed, Christian Right leaders milled about in the halls of the hotel, including Gary Bauer, who speaks highly of both Thompson and Romney, and the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, who recently dismissed Huckabee's chances and criticized him for being too soft on foreign policy and immigration. But the summit attendees who leaped to their feet at the close of Huckabee's address streamed past the heavyweights to cast their votes. If religious voters heed Mike Huckabee's call again once the real voting begins, the battle between the purists and pragmatists in the Christian Right may well be settled in Iowa.

The original version of this story incorrectly implied that Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention was at the Values Voters Summit on the morning of Mike Huckabee's speech. Dr. Land spoke at the Summit the day before and left that night.