Huckabee's New Face For New Hampshire

Republican presidential hopeful former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee plays with the Moma Kicks bands lead singer Lisa Guyer during a campaign stop in Henniker, N.H., Friday, Jan. 4, 2008.
This story was written by political reporter David Miller.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister, cruised to victory in the Iowa caucuses largely by positioning himself as, in the words of one of his own ads, a "Christian leader" - a message that won over the state's large contingent of evangelical Christians.

But in New Hampshire, where reserved, mainline Protestantism is the prevailing creed, Huckabee has dropped the religious references that frequently peppered his speeches before evangelical voters. If he sounds like anyone these days, it's libertarian candidate Ron Paul, with a bit of John Edwards thrown in.

At a Friday event in Henniker, Huckabee made frequent references to the Founding Fathers and notions of liberty and freedom.

"New Hampshire declared its independence six months before the rest of the country finally came around with you guys and figured it out," he told the crowd. "Your license plates say Live Free Or Die. In New Hampshire it's more like live free, or you will die."

The reference to the state's motto gets a big response from the audience, as do his statements against both health insurance companies and big government, words that might not seem out of place coming from a populist Democrat like Edwards.

"Maybe some of the Democrats say, let's have the government control it," Huckabee said. "Let the government make more decisions on health care. To be fair, some Republicans say, no, we want the private insurance companies to make all the decisions about health care. I'm gonna be honest with you folks: I don't trust the government or the private insurance companies to take care of me. I want to take care of me."

What's missing from the speech are any references or even veiled allusions to Huckabee's positions on abortion and gay marriage. No talk of "activist judges" or the "sanctity of life" - buzzwords within the social conservative movement.

The rhetorical shift from Huckabee is an acknowledgment of one of the key differences between Republicans in Iowa and the ones he's now courting in New Hampshire. Surveys have shown that GOP voters here tend not to be weekly churchgoers, and conservatives here are more concerned with fiscal issues than social ones.

But that doesn't mean religion is irrelevant to this race.

On Friday, Mitt Romney, who came in second to Huckabee in Iowa, took a question from a woman in the audience on whether she should vote for a candidate whose religious views are more in line with her own, or another candidate who she believes is solid on all the issues she cares about. She asked the question without using names.

"A very theoretical idea, nothing like this exists," Romney joked - the woman's scenario described perfectly a choice between the evangelical Huckabee or Romney, a Mormon.

"Look at the history of our country, and consider the people who have been president of the United States," Romney went on to say. "We've had people of very different faiths, and in each case they draw from the foundation of our Judeo-Christian philosophy."

While some voters here may have the religious beliefs of candidates on their mind, those voters haven't been courted as aggressively as they were in Iowa, said state GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen.

"Evangelicals are certainly a well respected and welcome part of our coalition here," he said. "They are not as dominant in the party as they are in some other states. If one of the candidates were able to corner the market on evangelicals they'd basically be doing very well here. But on the Republican side, no one candidate has dominated among evangelicals. They're all over the map in terms of candidates they're supporting."

That may be mostly due to the Huckabee campaign's inability to spend the resources in New Hampshire to build a network of evangelical support. He spent nearly all of his time and money cultivating a base in Iowa, with little attention paid to New Hampshire. Polls taken here after the Iowa caucuses show him in a battle for third place with Rudy Giuliani, behind John McCain and Romney.

But Huckabee is winning over some here, devoutly religious or otherwise. Tali McBride, who attended Huckabee's event in Henniker, said the candidate's opposition to abortion resonated with her, even if the subject never came up that day.

"I guess it would have been nice to hear more but I think I know where he stands, so I don't think there's anything he really could have said," she said. "People ask me if that's why I support him and I think that it's one aspect of his candidacy but it's not the total package."

Peter Flynn, an undecided voter, said he came away impressed with Huckabee. A lifelong New Hampshire resident, he said that while Huckabee's brand of religion may not be dominant in the state, it was unlikely to cost him any votes.

"I think New Hampshire is a very conservative state and I believe that in that conservatism comes people with religious backgrounds," he said. "Maybe not as practicing as you'd think, but certainly it's not a setback for anybody. It's not an obstacle, if a candidate is, you know, highly spiritual or a religious person."

By David Miller