It used to be such a simple thing for Republican candidates to position themselves as modern conservative leaders of the faith.
You’d make coy campaign overtures to religious denominations that couldn’t officially endorse you. Point at the lurid God-baiting work of a liberal pop culture, a liberal media and a liberal university scene. Hotly denounce the activist courts, and their bids to treat abortion and euthanasia as counterculture party favors, while de-Christianizing the schools and the public square. Introduce symbolic variations as needed: NEA-funded blasphemies in the museums, gay marriage as mortal threat to civilization, secular tolerance as coddling of “Islamofascists,” the special Congressional session on the Terri Schiavo case, the “war on Christmas,” etc.
Then, come election day, reel in the credulous ballots of evangelical voters, ignore most of their agenda while in office, only to rediscover it each fresh new election cycle. Repeat until you’ve achieved a near-permanent majority—or the rapture happens.
This time out, however, the procedure is much more dicey. The 2008 presidential field offers precious few viable standard-bearers for the religious right’s movement voters. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is a huge obstacle for many evangelicals—a problem he hopes to dispel with a major speech on his faith later this week. And the mistress-chauffering, pro-choice, soft-on-gay-rights Rudy Giuliani is a nonstarter for most self-styled values voters, to put things mildly.
Hence former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s sudden lurch to the top of the polls in Iowa—a state so rife with conservative Christian voters that it went to certifiable lunatic Pat Robertson in the 1988 caucus season.
Recent polling in New Hampshire shows him closing fast on longtime Granite State poll leader Mr. Romney. And Huckabee campaign hands are increasingly sanguine about his chances in South Carolina—the big, evangelically rich portal to the Southern phase of the primaries, and the subsequent Super Tuesday blowout.
“The conservative Christian voters in South Carolina weren’t initially all that interested in Huckabee,” recalls former G.O.P. Governor David Beasley, speaking from behind the wheel of his pickup as he toured the back reaches of his farm. “They were still sitting on the sidelines; a few made commitments to Romney and other candidates.”
But now that Mr. Huckabee’s gaining serious ground, he says, “they see a candidate who shares their views, and they’ve moving over to him lock, stock and barrel.”
It’s true that Mr. Romney has long since locked up many of the state’s conservative consultants—“the good, the bad and the filthy” in Mr. Beasley’s estimation. But thanks to a wildly popular Web-based Chuck Norris endorsement and generally sympathetic media coverage of the campaign, “the governor’s message is now resonating through the Internet and the normal channels of the Christian political community,” Mr. Beasley says.
Like a growing number of evangelical leaders, Mr. Huckabee’s disposed to accept the idea—still bizarrely controversial on the right—that global warming stems from human activity, together with the corollary view that humans should play some role in reversing it. He’s a vocal critic of mandatory minimum drug sentencing, and other excesses of a “revenge-based corrections system.” He hasn’t revised that position rightward, even though his own Arkansas record has given him (or, more accurately, his opponents) a Willie Horton-style poster boy for soft-on-crime charges, convicted rapist Wayne DuMond.
And even though Mr. Huckabee is increasingly talking like a Tancredo-like immigration bully in the primaries, he also leavens that stand with McCain-style reminders that immigrants shouldn’t be punished for their honest aspirations—let alone see their children demonized for their parents’ alleged trespasses. He’s opposed President Bush’s veto of the Democratic Congress’s expanded State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and even called for an investigation of Mr. Bush and other senior White House officials based on Scott McClellan’s reported revelations that false information about the Valerie Plame case originated from the White House’s very highest echelons.
But where Mr. Huckabee appears to pose the greatest discomfort for the Republican establishment is on economic grounds. He is given to denouncing globalization’s hardships on the campaign stump, and raised taxes 21 times in Little Rock (while also, he’s quick to point out, cutting them more than 90 times)—lifting the state out of a deficit and into a surplus in the bargain. That record has earned him the undying enmity of the antitax Club for Growth; the libertarian Cato Institute has given him a “D” grade based on his Arkansas fiscal record.
Still, the party’s business wing can’t launch a preemptive anti-Huckabee strike because it, too, is largely decoupled from the old G.O.P. governing coalition.
Grover Norquist, who as head of Americans for Tax Reform is the de facto policy pope of the supply-side right, has pointedly refrained from joining in on the anti-Huckabee assaults mounted by the Club for Growth and allied columnists like Robert Novak and Jonah Goldberg. Mr. Norquist recently told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network that he looked kindly upon Mr. Huckabee’s centerpiece tax reform—institution of the national retail “fair tax”—even though the plan is sketchy, likely regressive and scarcely the vehicle to overpower and replace the I.R.S., as Mr. Huckabee claims it to be.
True, Mr. Huckabee has been more accommodating of Mr. Norquist than the group he likes to call “the Club for Greed”—he’s lately signed on to the ATR pledge to introduce no new tax increases from the White House. But it’s at least as striking that Mr. Norquist—best known for his pledge to shrink the state until it could be drowned in a bathtub—seems barely to blanch at a recidivist tax hiker like Mr. Huckabee. That could well mean that the reigning orthodoxies in the G.O.P. coalition are poised to switch places.
“As long as you could depend on the big shots in the Christian right to drink the Kool-Aid on taxes and all the rest of it, did you really give a shit about abortion?” says Mark Silk, author of the landmark study Spiritual Politics and professor of religion and public life at Trinity College. “There’s been some chatter from the left on the shifting field” on the Republican side, Mr. Silk continues. “They say, ‘Well, this proves all along that it’s the money guys in the G.O.P. coalition who control the thing.’ But I think that deeply fails to understand the nature of the Republican coalition. Yeah, there are the money guys, but then there are the people who have the votes. You’re not talking about symmetrical coalition partners.” Put another way: Should Mike Huckabee continue gaining ground in this unsettled primary season, the disenchanted evangelical set could be dispensing a whole new brand of Koo