The Plank

Evangelical Leaders And Huck: Still A Tricky Relationship

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Forget Michigan and Flip-Flop Mitt. With South Carolina looming, the more gripping question on the GOP side is whether values voters will be able to help Mike Huckabee extend his magical mystery tour. With Huck’s candidacy now intimately tied to evangelicals, one can’t help but think that the movement’s political fate depends to a degree on his. And yet some evangelical leaders remain deeply conflicted about how much farther they’d like to see the former governor go.     

On the one hand, the folks I talked to see Huck's Iowa adventure, along with his rise in the polls, as having already performed an invaluable service by giving the lie to the great "Evangelical Crackup" the NYT was proclaiming a few months back. “If you have eyes to see, it’s now clear you can’t win as a Republican if you don’t have massive support among evangelical and traditional voters,” cheers the Southern Baptist's Richard Land.

And even if Huck tanks in South Carolina, they insist, he has indelibly impacted the race. Gary Bauer, once of the Family Research Council and now head of American Values, keeps in touch with the Republican field and says it's clear "they're picking up an emphasis in that area." (He points to McCain's "My Christmas Story" campaign ad recalling the former POW’s cross-drawing encounter with a Christian prison guard in Vietnam as a nod to Huck’s rise in Iowa around that time.) Agrees Michael Cromartie, head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Evangelical Studies Project, “Anybody like Romney or McCain who moves forward can’t be cavalier about those issue coming out of Iowa."

Leaders admit that a Rudy win would be bad news for the movement. But assuming anyone else wins the nominationincluding John “agents of intolerance” McCainthey are prepared to declare victory, crediting Huck’s early success with having forced the field to recognize the enduring importance of values voters and move in their direction.

On the other hand...

Huck shouldn’t expect a flood of big-name endorsements any time soon. For one thing, the erstwhile minister has seriously cheesed off some leaders with his public complaints about their not showing him the love. They express bemusement at his sense of “entitlement” and find his whining about their not rushing to endorse him downright irritating. As Bauer notes, “I for one give no credence to the idea that, because somebody worships the same way I do, they automatically have a claim on my support."

Some leaders also worry (hope?) that, with Huck now being taken more seriously, his record and positions will draw greater scrutinyand harsher criticism. “As he comes under more examination, there is a real possibility of there [emerging] misgivings about him on economic and foreign policy issues. So then those voters will go somewhere else,” says Bauer. Particularly on foreign policy, he stresses, “his instincts are not good."

On some level, this all smells suspiciously like sour grapes: Most evangelical chiefs declined to back Huck for whatever reasonspolicy differences, the assumption he had a snowball’s chance of winning, the desire to play kingmaker for a candidate with shakier evangelical street cred who would owe them more if he wonso now they may not want him to win lest it reflect poorly on either their judgment or their juice.

That said, it’s tough to deny that a guy whose economic policy rests squarely on the “fair tax” would be in for a rough ride in a general election. This is assuming, of course, that Huck managed to overcome the animosity directed at him from segments of the GOP less dazzled by his religious bona fides. (“Club for Greed” types certainly wouldn't mind seeing him left for roadkill on the backroads of SC.) The longer Huck stays in this raceespecially with his class-warrior shtick--the longer he puts a strain on the fault lines within the Reagan coalition. This, evangelical leaders must realize, could mean serious heartache for their troops.

--Michelle Cottle

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