Since Mitt Romney withdrew his bid for the Republican presidential nomination yesterday, Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the "preacher politician," remain the strongest contenders in a race that experts say could become more about religion than domestic policy.
Some conservatives have praised former Mass. Gov. Romney and Huckabee for their religious identities but question McCain, who had a strong showing in this week's primaries.
However, he was criticized for a "lack of faith," receiving boos and jeers yesterday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event that he did not attend last year.
"Clearly in the case of Huckabee, the reason he has such appeal in the South and parts of the Midwest is because of his religious roots," said Boston University religion professor Frank Korom. "[Huckabee is] appealing to the evangelical base, despite his [political] qualifications being less than the other Republican candidates."
The test of any Republican candidates' viability lies in appeal to the evangelical electorate, which comprises one-third of the Republican Party, according to MSNBC exit polling from Super Tuesday.
BU political science professor Douglas Kriner said religion is often a splinter between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party. Fiscal conservatives tend to support restrained government spending and tax cuts while social conservatives are more concerned with hot-button issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, he said.
"What religion does is that people of a certain religion tend to share preferences of social or political issues," Kriner said.
Romney, who had picked up 286 delegates before he dropped out of the presidential race, claimed he did not want to further divide the party. Romney said he would have continued to be a distraction in the race, and take attention away from McCain if his campaign had persisted.
"If I fight on in my campaign all the way to the convention . . . I'd forestall the launch of a national campaign and frankly I'd be making it easier for Clinton or Obama to win," Romney said in his concession speech yesterday.
"More evangelical Christians who weigh religious issues more heavily are interested in the Republican Party than the Democrats," Kriner said.
However, while Republican conservatives often identify themselves as committed Christians, the Democrats are not asked about evangelical beliefs by exit pollers, according to a Feb. 2 New York Times article.
Massachusetts for Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Mark Daley said the evangelical vote does not affect the Clinton campaign seriously because evangelicals comprise a larger part of the Republican Party. "There isn't a Democratic parallel to that," he said. "Obviously we have a lot of Jewish people and Christians."
© 2008 The Daily Free Press via U-WIRE