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Could Huckabee Be Mr. Right?

Social conservatives can stop looking for their perfect presidential candidate. There is one Republican who, given his credentials, would appear the likeliest to rally evangelicals and others on the Christian right.

He is resolutely anti-abortion, supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and is a man of deep faith. He has been elected — and reelected — to statewide office in a Democratic-leaning state.

And he’s right under their noses: Mike Huckabee.

But evangelical leaders are not flocking to their brother in Christ, as Huckabee, despite his political and personal values, remains far behind other less “pure” Republican contenders in the presidential sweepstakes.

The former Arkansas governor and one-time head of his state’s Southern Baptist Convention has been dismissed by many leaders of that movement, not because of any perceived ideological or moral deficiencies but for the most pragmatic of reasons: He simply can’t win, they say.

But do prominent Christian conservative leaders ensure that outcome when, instead of supporting one of their own and shepherding others to support him, they hold out for a better option or settle for an imperfect — if ostensibly more electable — candidate?

“They all say Mike Huckabee is a great guy — and then they say he can’t win,” laments campaign manager John "Chip" Saltsman, explaining what inevitably happens when Huckabee meets with top leaders of the religious right.

“‘If you get traction, come back to us,’” Saltsman recounts them as saying, to which Huckabee, in his typically lighthearted manner, replies, “Guys, you are my traction.”

It’s the consummate political predicament for political dark horses — they can’t be viable if they don’t have a wellspring of support, but if they don’t have a wellspring of support, they can’t be viable.

“It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Saltsman admits.

 

Summing up the conventional wisdom among social conservative elites, Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Newsweek that many of his brethren like the very likable former preacher.

“But nobody thinks he can beat Hillary, and a fear of another Clinton White House outweighs almost everything,” Land explained, referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York senator and front-runner in the Democratic contest.

Another prominent Christian conservative leader, Mark DeMoss, put it another way when he wrote movement activists this week in support of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“If I believed similar theology was paramount in a president, I would be writing this memo urging support of Mike Huckabee,” DeMoss wrote. 

In an interview, DeMoss, a well-known Christian public relations specialist who once worked for the Rev. Jerry Falwell at Virginia’s Liberty University, said he sympathized with Huckabee’s plight but argued that it is not mere questions of viability that hamper the Arkansan.

“If a candidate’s values were the only criteria I used, then that complaint would be right on the money,” DeMoss said.

“But the reason I’m with Mitt Romney and not other guys whose values and theology square with mine is not because they’re not electable; it’s because I believe Romney’s life experience and expertise makes him more qualified to be president.”

Comparing political assessments to other such judgments in life, DeMoss continued, “When I interview somebody to work for me, I don’t just hire somebody because they go to my church and believe what I believe. So why would I do that when we’re talking about the president of the United States?”

Still, DeMoss concedes that e hears “about once a week” from fellow Christian conservatives a cold-eyed analysis similar to the one Land offered.

Saltsman said his candidate and his campaign have responded to the cold shoulder by working around national conservatives who don’t give Huckabee much of a chance.

“In Iowa and South Carolina, especially, we’re starting to get some of the grass-roots evangelicals,” Saltsman said.

“Some of these folks scratch their head, saying, ‘We’ve got a great candidate right here,’” Saltsman said of their state and local Christian backers, predicting hopefully that the state leaders “pull the national ones along whether they like it or not.”

Thanks to support from social conservatives — and especially the network of home-schooling families — there are signs, at least in Iowa, that Saltsman is right.

Huckabee came in a surprise second place in the Ames Straw Poll in August, and a recent Des Moines Register poll had him in third place, with 12 percent, behind both Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson. Of the one-quarter of those sampled who said they had made up their minds about who they will support at the caucuses, Huckabee had the firmest backing.

“We’re doing it one small community at a time,” said Saltsman, who talked while packing up his things to move up to Iowa, where he’ll spend much of his time through January.

But even as they work the pulpits and pews of the Hawkeye State, Team Huckabee remains weighed down by questions of electability. He didn’t help himself by raising a paltry $1 million in the third quarter of the year.

Indeed, his fundraising performance raised serious questions over how Huckabee could be competitive in the face of a jam-packed primary calendar in January and February — regardless of how he does in Iowa. Those later contests occur in bigger states that are less conducive to his brand of retail campaigning.

In short, just as his campaign appears to show real signs of life in a key early state comes another pesky reminder of Huckabee’s practical challenges.

Such political realities are nothing new, said Craig Shirley, a conservative publicist and author who has studied Ronald Reagan’s career.

Even though The Gipper had a mixed record on some issues dear to social conservatives, including abortion, he eventually won their favor in 1980 for decidedly pragmatic reasons.

“It was about pragmatism in that they perceived Reagan could or would be the nominee and the others were not,” Shirley said. “That’s the paradox of politics for the guys at the bottom. People tell them they can’t support them because no one is supporting them. You might call it the ‘Christian Catch 22.’”