Huckabee rises on religious tide

December 07, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

His name sounds like a chain of family restaurants. His smile is big and deep-dimpled, like the Campbell Soup kids. When Mike Huckabee smiles at you, you feel like smiling back.

But not always. The former Arkansas governor's recent surge in Iowa polls has wiped the smile from his fellow Republican presidential candidates' lips.

In a month, Mr. Huckabee surged from the second tier of Republican candidates to a statistical tie for first place in this week's Des Moines Register poll. Of the likely Republican caucus-goers surveyed, Mr. Huckabee scored 29 percent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney scored 24 percent and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani scored 13 percent.

That had to be a jolt to Mr. Romney. He was a front-runner for weeks in Iowa, where he has spent more than $7 million. Mr. Huckabee has spent only about $300,000.

In terms of campaign finance, that's a great David-vs.-Goliath story. It warms the heart to see that a small-state governor can still rise up like Democratic Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia did in 1976 to beat the big-name, big-money candidates from bigger states.

Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Huckabee appears to have found his votes, or, more accurately, his votes have found him. Conservative evangelicals are starting to gravitate toward Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister.

For voters who have not made up their minds by now, policies and issues often play a less important role than the visceral good-feelings factors: Who's more "likable"? To whom can I "relate" more easily?

Mr. Huckabee is the kind of guy who a lot of people would like to go to prayer meetings with. Conservative evangelicals have played a critical role in Republican successes in recent years, especially for President Bush, who proudly put himself forth in 2000 as one of their own.

To his credit, Mr. Huckabee has elevated the debate. I don't agree with his anti-abortion stance, but I appreciate the concern he has shown not just for the unborn but also for people who, after a baby comes into their lives, spiral into financial, emotional or familial distress.

As a minister and politician, Mr. Huckabee has counseled and worked with poor and working-class families.

He has thrown down a gauntlet against the budget-slashers who want to cut services to the poor as a first resort, not the last.

He also was a courageous voice of reason amid the anti-immigrant feeding frenzy during the latest GOP debate.

Unfortunately, part of Mr. Huckabee's support appears to be coming his way for a very troubling reason: religious bias. For months, polls have shown Mr. Romney's Mormon religion to be a bigger handicap for him with voters than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's gender or Sen. Barack Obama's race.

I have heard respectable Christian ministers declare on national television that Mormons are not members of a "religion" but of a "cult." That erroneous put-down reminds me of author Tom Wolfe's observation: A cult is a religion that lacks political clout.

We don't need to see any more sectarian divisions in American politics. We've seen too much ugliness from race cards, religion cards, ethnicity cards and gender cards already.

In these times of political and religious polarization, we Americans need to hear a serious voice of moral courage, and Mr. Huckabee is equipped to deliver it.

In beating back the demon of religious prejudice, Mr. Huckabee should give Mr. Romney help, not for the sake of either of their campaigns, but for the good of our country.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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