Mike Huckabee’s path through the Republican primaries in 2008 didn’t involve a lot of competition for the mantle of champion of the social conservatives, but this time the former Arkansas governor is just one of a number of candidates eager to proclaim pro-life, pro-traditional marriage credentials, making it tougher for him to stand out in a crowded field.
That’s showing up in the polls in Iowa, whose caucuses he won in 2008 on the strength of evangelical voters, but where he now polls in the middle of the pack.
“There is no doubt this is a bigger challenge for him,” said Brian S. Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which is calling on candidates to pledge to push to overturn the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling — a major issue for Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist preacher before he was governor.
But backing traditional marriage is also a major issue for rivals Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Mr. Brown said.
Compare that to eight years ago, when Mr. Huckabee faced just one major claimant — then-Sen. Sam Brownback — to be the social conservative champion in the GOP field. Mr. Huckabee bested Mr. Brownback in the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll, and two months later the senator dropped out of the race, leaving Mr. Huckabee the top pro-life champion in the field and giving him a clear path to his caucus victory.
This year, the pro-life community is eyeing a number of candidates who carry its message.
“Mike Huckabee is a great, great candidate and a great guy, but especially with all the candidate running this year it is going to be hard anyone of them to coalesce the social conservatives,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee.
In last week’s kick-off GOP debate, Mr. Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida thrilled pro-life advocates by vowing to oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Mr. Huckabee, trying to carve out political space, took it a step further, saying the next president should “invoke the Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.”
He returned to the issue Thursday, campaigning at the Iowa State Fair, where he said God’s approval of the U.S. depends on ending abortion.
“I am not sure how we fully expect to invoke God’s blessing on this country if we continue the slaughter of unborn children in their mother’s wombs — 60 million of whom have passed away since 1973,” he said, alluding to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. “Let’s start acting like a civilized people, rather than barbarians, let’s stop the slaughter.”
Mr. Huckabee is among a number of candidates that have struggled to grab the spotlight since Donald Trump cannonballed into the race, hogging the media space and surging to the front in the polls.
Some analysts say that Mr. Huckabee’s political plight is part of the reason that he ratcheted up his rhetoric last month by warning that President Obama is marching Israelis to “the door of the oven” by agreeing to a nuclear deal with Iran.
Robert Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader, a Christian group in Iowa, said Mr. Huckabee performed well in last week’s debate and reminded his 2008 supporters why they backed him.
But he acknowledged the 2016 field is more stocked than 2008, where his biggest rivals on caucus night were Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism hurt him among evangelical voters.
Mr. Vander Plaats, who served as Mr. Huckabee’s state chair in 2008, said the former governor’s biggest threat next year could be Mr. Cruz.
Despite his attractive personal style, “people are still not convinced that [Mr. Huckabee] will provide the bold leadership it is going to take to get this country back on track,” he said.