Mike Huckabee’s leap of faith

The GOP insurgent appeals to some conservative Iowans because he "fears God." But will religious supporters bring him the light of victory?

Topics: 2008 Elections, Republican Party, Mike Huckabee,

Mike Huckabee's leap of faith

In his sermon, John Tank didn’t quite tell the congregation at Grace West Church who to support for president. But that doesn’t mean the church’s assistant pastor shied away from politics on the last Sunday before the Iowa caucuses. “As a Christian, how do I stand up for what I believe? Maybe this year, it’s actually participating in the caucus,” Tank said. “This country is in desperate, dire need of Christian leadership.”

And at Grace West — and among many other communities of fervent conservative Christians across Iowa — there’s not much doubt which candidate that means. “Mike Huckabee,” said Kevin Charter, a computer programmer, after services. “He’s a follower of Jesus Christ. I just believe that he will lead our country with that faith and that truth.” For his part, Tank is also supporting Huckabee (as, he believes, are most members of his flock), though IRS regulations for nonprofit groups mean he could not say so from the pulpit.

In the closing days of a Republican race teetering between Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, strategists for both sides agree that Huckabee has enormous support among Iowa’s evangelical Christians. What no one really knows, however, is what that will translate into on caucus night. Turnout is crucial, and Huckabee’s campaign has not had the cash to build a campaign organization that can guarantee that his supporters will come out en masse. In essence, the once obscure Baptist preacher turned GOP insurgent is depending on, well, a leap of faith.

If conservative evangelicals wind up leading Huckabee to victory in Iowa, it may well be because they got their own vote out. While Romney’s team is executing a massive, well-planned ground operation (like the leading Democratic candidates, who have their own enormous turnout machines in motion here), Huckabee’s operatives can’t really say for sure how many of his supporters will show up.

“That’s everybody’s guess,” Bob VanderPlaats, Huckabee’s state chairman, said with a laugh Saturday, when I asked him about turnout. Many of Huckabee’s supporters were turned on to his campaign by friends, fellow home-schoolers, church members or family — the sort of informal, preexisting networks and social ties that are considered more valuable than gold in the world of political organizing. But that means Huckabee’s shoestring campaign doesn’t have much in the way of reliable data, since his voters did more to find Huckabee than the other way around. Many Christian conservatives I talked to this week said they hadn’t had a lot of official contact with Huckabee’s team before they decided to back him. “It’s not a superficial e-mail campaign, it’s real,” said John King, another computer programmer, who lives in Pella, Iowa, where he and his wife are home-schooling their six children. “It’s moms having a weekly Bible study, and it’s home-school dads having a basketball game together,” said King’s friend Greg Hartsill, who lives in Columbia, Iowa, and is home-schooling seven kids. “It’s wherever we meet in life.”

For voters like them, Huckabee’s appeal is pretty plain. “He fears God,” said Scott Bailey, from just outside Otley, Iowa, where he’s president of a network of conservative Christian home-schoolers. “Apart from that, nothing else matters to me in a candidate.” As he gave his stump speech at rallies over the last few days, Huckabee was occasionally interrupted by a “Praise God!” exclaimed from the audience. In Pella, a supporter had him autograph a copy of an intelligent-design textbook (though Huckabee, who famously indicated at a GOP debate in May that he didn’t believe in evolution, prefers these days not to talk about exactly how humans arrived on Earth).

The campaign is well aware of who makes up his base. Huckabee ran one commercial calling himself a “Christian leader.” His Christmas ad veered far from the usual fare, telling Iowans it was time to remember that “what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ” (and, of course, prompting an only-in-politics controversy about the whether the cross-shaped bookshelf behind him was sending a coded message to viewers). His response to attacks from Romney has been to remind caucus goers how much longer Huckabee has been against abortion and gay marriage than his rival. And allies in a group called “Trust Huckabee” have been running their own ads, independent from the Huckabee operation, highlighting Romney’s earlier, less conservative positions on those issues, which are at the top of the minds of many Christian conservatives.

Yet Huckabee’s standard speeches these days include less talk about God or faith or family values. He’s focusing mostly on a populist economic message and on defending his Arkansas record on taxes and criminal pardons, under attack from a barrage of Romney ads. He clearly draws support from more than just church groups, too. Plenty of people who listened to him speak recently said they liked his easygoing manner, or his support for the FairTax plan (which would abolish the IRS and set up a national sales tax), without mentioning his religious views at all. Newly arrived campaign manager Ed Rollins said in an interview Saturday that advisors believe Huckabee has already gotten his faith across to people who want to hear about it; now it’s time to shift to a broader message.

Still, aides of rivals and as well as Huckabee’s are putting great weight on the evangelical vote, historically a reliable bloc of caucus-goers, as they look ahead to Thursday. But some of the people who are most excited about Huckabee will be attending caucuses for the first time, which always leaves campaigns worried about whether they’ll make it there. “My wife’s never been to caucus that I can remember, but she says she’s going with me this time,” said John Shaull, a Huckabee supporter who leads a team of Southern Baptist pastors in the Des Moines area. “And my son and daughter, who’ve never been to one, are saying, ‘Hey, Dad, tell us more about it.’” Republican caucuses aren’t as complicated as those for the Democrats in Iowa, but the experience is still different enough from regular voting to be confusing. Like many other candidates, Huckabee is distributing a “Caucus 101″ instructional DVD at his events. Unlike many other candidates, Huckabee opens his by asking caucus-goers to pray on his behalf.

Meanwhile, the Christian vote is apparently not sacrosanct when it comes to the kind of dirty tricks that pop up late in every close election. At Grace West, John Tank showed the congregation an anonymous mailing he got last week, with no return address, warning pastors not to talk about politics at all or they’d “end up in the slammer.” It was addressed, “Dear Fellow Christian,” and seemed designed to scare the clergy at churches whose believers might turn out for Huckabee if their pastors made the caucuses a focus. (Romney, though, has been the victim of much nastier mail, in several states, playing on evangelical skepticism about his Mormon faith. Naturally, every campaign denies involvement in any of that.)

While state campaign chairman VanderPlaats says Huckabee voters are more likely to turn out than others because his candidate gives supporters something different to believe in, counting on some of the most devout people in the state can pose some unique challenges. Take Amy Banwart, who lives in West Des Moines and works at Grace West. She says she is 100 percent behind Huckabee, whom she calls “a believer in Christ Jesus, the only way to salvation,” and she thinks he’ll fight to end abortion and keep traditional marriage the only legal kind. But she won’t be caucusing Thursday because, as she put it, she feels God calling her to coach the church’s youth basketball team in a game that night instead.

A much bigger obstacle could be the Huckabee campaign’s sheer lack of infrastructure. The Iowa campaign manager, Eric Woolson, told me “we will have the resources” needed to put on a ground game. And Huckabee aides say they’re identifying 1,000 new voters daily. But Huckabee has only 14 paid staffers, while Romney has 10 full-time field staff in Iowa alone and “a couple hundred” volunteers organized in all 99 counties, according to his state spokesman, Tim Albrecht. “Romney seems to have a much stronger grass-roots effort at trying to pull people out to the caucuses in his support than Huckabee does,” said Mike Demastus, the pastor at the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, who’s supporting Huckabee. “Huckabee is just, kind of, I think, maybe a little bit taking for granted that they’re going to come out.” Demastus got four phone calls from Romney’s campaign on Saturday alone, asking whether he would support Romney. Every time he said he was for Huckabee, the caller asked patiently if there was anything that could change his mind. He’s gotten almost no calls from Huckabee.

If Huckabee does win Iowa, in spite of Romney’s superior operation built on millions of dollars, it would represent the kind of triumph of passion over organization that this state manages to produce every now and then. But that’s not what Huckabee calls it. During an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday (which aired in Des Moines just before most church services got under way), Tim Russert asked him if a victory here would be a miracle. “By my definition?” the one-time clergyman responded. “Yes, it would.”

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>