I wonder if there might not be a connection between the two trends noted below: Mike Huckabee's rise and Rudy Giuliani's stagnation. Pundits, including many on the right, predicted that social issues would be trumped by other considerations even among a plurality of religious conservatives. Those pundits appear to be wrong.
Two candidates entered the race in an attempt to fill the vacuum to the right of Giuliani: Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. Romney adopted the issue positions and the rhetoric, but his Massachusetts record complicated his effectiveness as a social conservative messenger. Thompson, by contrast, has the record but hasn't been willing to tailor his issue positions exactly to the specifications of leading social conservative groups (with the notable exceptions of the National Right to Life Committee and some state pro-life groups) and seems uncomfortable with the rhetoric.
Nevertheless, skeptical social conservatives turned first to Romney, having learned about him from generally favorable treatment in the conservative press. Then they discovered his past social liberalism and how recently he changed on abortion and other issues. The buzz then surrounded Thompson, whose poll numbers rose in anticipation that he'd get into the race. Yet when he finally threw his hat into the rang, there were complaints that he didn't meet expectations and soon his numbers began to decline.
Then attention shifted back to Romney, who devoted considerable resources to socially conservative Iowa and eventually South Carolina. Combined with the traditional Massachusetts advantage in New Hampshire, he once again seemed the practical choice for Republicans who thought Giuliani was too socially liberal. But there remained gnawing concerns about his authenticity.
Enter Mike Huckabee. Huckabee speaks the evangelicals' language, has a consistent record on their issues, and impressed people at venues like the Ames straw poll and the Values Voter Summit. As word spread about his underfunded campaign (and, as I suspect we'll eventually find out, as a network of evangelical pastors and activists provided a supplement to his campaign in Iowa) and the media adopted him as a friendly evangelical, he caught on. Watching the other factions of the party insist on fidelity to their issues, from taxes to immigration to foreign policy, social conservatives wanted someone who met their litmus tests.
That's why the conservative campaign against Huckabee, however justified, might be counterproductive. Few conservative pundits tried to take down Giuliani. It is usually the mainstream media, not the conservative press, that has exposed Giuliani scandals. Elements of the right, meanwhile, have started pulling out all the stops against Huckabee, including the Club for Growth when the former Arkansas governor was still an asterik candidate.
I'm not saying conservatives shouldn't air their concerns about Huckabee, many of which I share. And it could just as easily be true that Huckabee will prove a flash in the pan in large part because of his conservative critics. But it could also contribute to the feeling of many social conservatives that they are being shortchanged. We'll see.
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