Can a Fractured G.O.P. Split the Difference With Huckabee?

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.

Can a Fractured G.O.P. Split the Difference With Huckabee?