Leaders of the Christian conservative movement who are considering fielding a third-party candidate rather than backing any of the top four contenders for the Republican presidential nomination are overlooking a GOP hopeful who is steadily gaining support in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee.
A Baptist minister who opposes abortion and gay marriage, Mr. Huckabee so far has failed to attract sufficient funds or support to hike him into the top tier of Republican candidates nationally. But growing evidence that conservatives are concerned about the choice shaping up in the Republican primary race, and his increasing popularity among voters in caucus states, offers the former Arkansas governor a rare opportunity to become a serious contender.
Mr. Huckabee has attracted notice for his memorable contributions to the Republican candidates' television debates, and he also has received warm praise for his political abilities from two opposing masters of the political process, President Clinton and a former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.
Mr. Huckabee is the "only dark horse that's got any kind of chance. … He's the best speaker they've got," Mr. Clinton, a fellow former governor of Arkansas, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. Mr. Gingrich described the candidate on the same show as "very effective. … If Huckabee can find money, he will be dramatically competitive almost overnight. You have to like Mike."
Mr. Huckabee yesterday pounced on the verdicts from two such disparate voices that he was a more viable candidate than his fund-raising suggests. "Obviously we're making a similar pitch to our supporters and donors. We've got a winning message. Our focus is on the money game," he said in a release from his headquarters in Little Rock.
The Huckabee campaign points to the latest Iowa poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International for Newsweek on September 26–27, which shows him at 12% support, ahead of Senator McCain of Arizona with 9%, and nearly neck-and-neck with Mayor Giuliani, who polled 13%. A former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, polled 24%, and a former senator of Tennessee, Fred Thompson, received 16%.
The survey shows a steadily improving performance by Mr. Huckabee. In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers conducted September 6–10, he polled a more modest 8%, while in a Des Moines Register poll in May, he attracted 4% support.
"The Newsweek poll reflects what we've been feeling on the ground for some time: that there is steady, upward momentum for my campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, and other early primary states," Mr. Huckabee said yesterday.
Unlike Mr. Huckabee, the top-ranked Republicans, excepting Mr. McCain, have been spending large sums in Iowa and New Hampshire to boost their name recognition and support.
Optimism in the Huckabee campaign is growing. "Since the Iowa Straw poll, Gov. Huckabee has been gaining upward momentum in nearly every poll," the campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, said in a statement yesterday. "Recent results in an American Research Group poll, released last month, show Gov. Huckabee is leading Mitt Romney among Republicans in South Carolina, and leading Fred Thompson in both Iowa and New Hampshire. These trends all indicate one thing: Mike Huckabee is a candidate who has the ‘right stuff' to win."
Mr. Huckabee's unequivocal Christian beliefs and behavior place him in good stead with the leaders of the Christian conservative movement, some of whom met in Salt Lake City last weekend to discuss their dissatisfaction with the Republicans currently leading the race for their party's presidential nomination.
James Dobson, founder of one of the largest Christian ministries, Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; a direct mail pioneer, Richard Viguerie; and dozens of other prominent conservative Christian activists issued a resolution declaring that "if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate, we will consider running a third-party candidate."
The statement was a thinly veiled reference to Mr. Giuliani, whose support for abortion rights and pro-gay stance, in addition to his three marriages and two divorces, have proved too much at odds with their own beliefs for many social conservatives.
Mr. Dobson said in June: "I cannot, and will not, vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It is an irrevocable decision. If given a Hobson's — Dobson's? — choice between him and Senators Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, I will either cast my ballot for an also-ran or if worse comes to worst not vote in a presidential election for the first time in my adult life. My conscience and my moral convictions will allow me to do nothing else."
Nor have Mr. Thompson's lukewarm attitude toward a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, his period as a lobbyist for an abortion rights group, and his lack of churchgoing pleased the Christians. Mr. Dobson wrote in a recent e-mail to his supporters that Thompson "has no passion, no zeal. ... And yet he is apparently the great hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"
Christian support for Mr. Romney is muted, not only because of his previous support for civil unions and abortion, but because he is a Mormon. In the Newsweek poll, 54% of Republicans said they did not consider Mormons to be Christians, and 45% said America is "not ready to elect a Mormon president."
Mr. McCain, a social conservative, offended many Christians by asserting they had too much influence over public life during the run-up to the 2000 Republican primaries. Despite efforts to mend fences, he remains unpopular among Christian activists.