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Friday, October 26, 2007

Perspectives: Why Huckabee poses a dilemma for pro-family leaders

Warren Smith - Guest Columnist
October 26, 2007

I spent last weekend at the Family Research Council's "Values Voter Summit" in Washington, DC. I came away believing it was a defining moment for the Mike Huckabee campaign.

He was greeted like a rock star by the crowd of more than 2,000. His speech was interrupted 20 times by applause, almost a dozen times by standing ovations. And he won the on-site straw poll by an overwhelming margin.

Among pro-family leaders, though, there is some hand-wringing because they worry that Huckabee -- who is the candidate the followers of the pro-family movement are obviously behind -- is unelectable. Pro-family leaders such as Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins would prefer to pick a winner, and be seen as the guys who made him a winner. However, they don't yet see Huckabee as a winner, so they're hanging fire.

But here are a few reasons why Huckabee could win, and why -- win or lose -- the pro-family leaders should back him.

First of all, in the polls, Huckabee is gaining ground. He's running as high as 11 percent in some national polls. That's now barely behind the frontrunners, and keep in mind that back in March, Huckabee wasn't even showing up in some polls, and coming in at 1 or 2 percent in others. In Iowa, he's running third, with about 13 percent.

Secondly, the frontrunners are fading, demonstrating how tentative their supporters are. Giuliani is around 28 percent, depending on the poll you trust. But back in March, Giuliani was around 40 percent. He's lost more than 10 percentage points over the past six months. Right now, Thompson is number two in the race, at around 18 percent, but after an initial "bounce" when he finally announced, Thompson's numbers, too, are headed south. McCain has gone from the high 20s to the low teens. Romney's numbers are erratic, but now they're not even in the teens, despite the fact that he has spent more money than any of the Republicans. That puts Huckabee at number five, and within shouting distance of number three. If current trends continue, he could overtake either McCain or Romney in the national polls within the next few weeks.

Thirdly, has there ever been a guy who has so closely matched the background and values of the modern evangelical? As conservative radio host and activist Rick Scarborough said, "This is the guy we've been praying for. If we don't back him, shame on us." And since we're talking religion, let's be honest: Romney's Mormonism is not the same as Kennedy's Catholicism. Most evangelicals believe Mormonism is a cult, with all sorts of weird beliefs. At a recent meeting of conservative activists in Salt Lake City, I heard a very influential Christian leader say, "Mormonism is demonic." Now, whether you believe that or not is not the point. The point is that lots of people do, and they are influential people in the evangelical world. So make no mistake -- if Romney remains a frontrunner, you can expect a national debate on some of the strange and esoteric beliefs and practices of Mormonism. Romney will have to say either that he believes them, and thereby seem weird or cultic to many Americans, or he will have to say he doesn't believe them, and thereby seem hypocritical or cowardly and traitorous. Either way, Romney loses.

The bottom line is this: There is very little chance the Republicans will have a candidate by March, despite the fact that some activists are saying we should put our differences aside and start running against Hillary. Of course, in a few months, after the first round of primaries, there will be some winners and losers. At least one of the frontrunners will have to drop out of the race. Right now, my money is on McCain to make an early exit. I also predict that Duncan Hunter will drop out. He's simply not getting traction because the issues he hoped would differentiate him are being carried ably by others. Ron Paul is in for the duration. He's raising enough money to stay in, and he seems to be enjoying the notoriety. And though he can't win, he will carry enough supporters late into the process -- perhaps all the way to the convention -- to play spoiler or convention broker.

Huckabee could be a major beneficiary of all of this, especially of any early re-alignments. As Huckabee starts to appear more electable, he will pick up more of the undecided voters, which right now stand at about 15 to 20 percent of the likely primary voters. They won't all break for Huckabee, of course, but he'll likely get more than his fair share. Also, many of those who have decided will change their minds. A former Southern Baptist leader in South Carolina who had supported Romney has already withdrawn his endorsement. Indeed, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council estimates that about 25 percent of evangelicals are supporting Giuliani, but he also said that support is "squishy." If just a few of those evangelicals move away from Giuliani, he's no longer the frontrunner. If they moved en masse to Huckabee, then Huckabee is suddenly a "top-tier" candidate.

Does all of this mean that Mike Huckabee will be the next president of the United States? Of course not. But does it mean that he could get the nomination? I think he could. And if that happens, who knows what might happen next? It wouldn't be the first time an early long-shot from Hope, Arkansas, has gone all the way to the White House.

So to go back to my original point: all of this poses a problem for pro-family leaders such as Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins, who have been "hanging fire." And for leaders such as Lou Sheldon, Bob Jones III, and Jay Sekulow, who are supporting Romney because of pragmatism, not principle. There is some wisdom in waiting, as Bauer and Perkins are doing, to let the process work. But the Romney supporters, I fear, will be judged by history as having sold-out their Christian birthright for a mess of Mormon porridge.

And all of them have to answer this question: If all they do is follow, then what makes them leaders?

Warren Smith (warren.smith@thecharlotteworld.com is the publisher of the Evangelical Press News Service.