Saturday, January 5, 2008

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s stunning victory in the Iowa caucuses over Mitt Romney and his vastly better-financed campaign shocked the conservative and Republican establishments to their roots.

Conservatives say the win by Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, reflects the ongoing divide in the Republican Party between traditional, small-government party members and evangelical Christians — a rift they fear will ultimately break the successful coalition inspired by President Reagan.

Club for Growth President Pat Toomey immediately urged New Hampshire voters to reject Mr. Huckabee and his big-government policies when they vote in the first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday.

“Republican voters should nominate a leader who will return the [Republican] Party to the principles of economic conservatism, not an economic liberal who wants to be the John Edwards of the Republican Party,” he said, referring to the former senator from North Carolina who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Many of Mr. Huckabee’s views as governor are seen by conservative critics as big-hearted, big-government liberalism set by a staunchly anti-abortion, pro-Second Amendment framework.

“[Last] year, Huckabee came to embrace a solidly conservative message, [and] people rallied to him,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, emerging as one of the top Christian conservative leaders. “They overlooked the fact he was not attractive to other members of the conservative coalition, and they said they don’t care about us, and we don’t care about them.”

Republican National Committee National Secretary Tim Morgan says it is not clear whether Mr. Huckabee can broaden his appeal from self-identified evangelicals, who made up 60 percent of Iowa’s Republican caucusgoers, to the economic and foreign-policy issues that made Mr. Reagan’s “three-legged stool” of a stronger military, a stronger economy and stronger families remain balanced.

But Dr. Randy Brinson, an evangelical activist and founder of Redeem the Vote, said Republican elitists still don’t get it.

“The Washington pundits have had it wrong since the analysis of the Bush re-election in 2004. They credited the coalition of social conservatives, economic conservatives and defense conservatives with electing Bush,” Dr. Brinson said. “The reality is that that group had always been part of the coalition, but Bush courted black voters, Hispanic voters, and blue-collar Catholics and union workers, especially in Ohio.”

Dr. Brinson said he is incensed that they are now “discounting the Huckabee platform and his populist message of taking back Washington from the corrupt Republican insiders that treat evangelicals as a commodity that can be traded or bartered.”

Unlike religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s headline-grabbing, second-place finish in the Iowa Republican caucuses in 1988, Mr. Huckabee finished a resounding first, nine percentage points ahead of a sophisticated and highly successful businessman and former governor of Massachusetts — just what many in the Republican establishment did not want to see.

Complicating predictions about where Mr. Huckabee and his religious supporters go from here is the fact that the Christian right, in a sense, is a misnomer.

It was always more Christian than right. Its Christian principles of sharing wealth and communal efforts are at odds with what was once the individualism and skepticism of free-market, low-tax, fiscal-restraint and limited-government core of Republicanism. Social-conservative leader Gary Bauer campaigned in 2000 on preserving Social Security in essentially the same form that President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced it to the nation.

Mr. Bauer said Mr. Huckabee “has the advantage of being an outsider at a time when disdain for the Washington establishment is sky high.”

“He is unambiguous about the social issues and is winsome,” he said. “But on foreign policy — where he seems confused and clearly not up to speed, and on economics, where he sounds often like John Edwards — he falls short of appealing to the coalition that will be needed to defeat the political left.”

The old right has had more than one blind spot regarding the evangelical right — never more evident than in its inability to see and understand the breadth of appeal of a candidate such as Mr. Huckabee, who publicly embraces creationism over the theory of evolution and talks about children of illegal aliens as deserving the same treatment as American citizens.

Evangelicals have their own blind spots when it comes to Mr. Huckabee’s faults.

His misstatements on foreign affairs, his record on pardoning felons, on expanding state government spending and raising taxes are dismissed by Huckabee supporters as lies and propaganda by a press and political establishment hostile to a religious candidate.

But for James Dobson, founder of Focus on Family, Mr. Huckabee’s victory in Iowa had plenty of pluses.

“The former governor may not become the Republican nominee, and I have not endorsed him, but what happened there last night was evidence of an energized and highly motivated conservative community,” Mr. Dobson said. “Not bad for a supposed bunch of demoralized, depressed, disillusioned and disengaged Reaganites.”

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