When Mike Huckabee asked a New York Times' reporter, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers," he crossed a line he cannot uncross.
Previous to this he had played a game of teasing the anti-Mormon vote, and had been called on it by Charles Krauthammer and others.
But Huckabee had maintained deniability.
No more. Huckabee's obvious attempt to salt the mine and get the reporter to carry antt-Mormon rhetoric into the paper without Huckabee's fingerprints on it backfired, and the transparent attempt to use the MSM to further the anti-Mormon message was repulsive.
Until he crossed that line, Huckabee remained a viable protest vote for conservative evangelicals who distrusted Romney's conversion on life issues. The hard core anti-Mormon fanatics are actually few in number and many of them are on the left --like Larry O'Donnell-- and Romney had successfully put the issue of his faith behind him with his speech at the Bush Library.
But Romney still needed to connect with movement social conservatives leery of his embrace of the cause of the unborn. Until he unfurled the banner of Christian identity politics, Huckabee provided these voters with a place to park their vote, even though the effect would be to elevate Rudy Guiliani. Some of these values voters were going to vote their conscience, regardless of the result.
But there are millions and millions of evangelicals who will want no part of the appeal to "vote against the Mormon."
With his recent rise in the polls, Huckabee began to experience a scrutiny of his record that was already eroding his appeal to social conservatives. The Committee for Growth blasted Huckabee for his record of hiking taxes in Arkansas. The former Arkansas governor looked not ready for prime time when he was caught flat-footed on the NIE. Huckabee's advocacy for Wayne DuMond could not be fast-talked away, and the argument for isolating victims of the AIDs virus set off alarms as beyond any reasonable position even though Huckabee made the proposal in 1992. Suddenly Huckabee began to appear as a light-weight, and the charming,,joking second-tier fun guy took on a distinctively different look.
Then comes the below the belt hit on Mormons, so profoundly off-putting to Republicans who believe in the big tent as well as to evangelicals and Catholics who know the gulf between their theology and that of the LDS Church but who would no more verbally assault their Mormons friends, neighbors and business colleagues than they would any other American different from them on matters of faith. It just itsn't done. "Republican voters will not tolerate attacks on faith," pollster Frank Luntz declared on my program yesterday. I think he is right, and I hope he is right.
Such attacks on different religious beliefs have been part of American history, but aren't part of the American future. The common creed of moral convictions that Romney referred to his his College Station speech on faith now includes as one of its tenets that you do not mock or insult another person's religion.
Buck Mike Huckabee did. To the world's most influential newspaper.
Huckabee ought to have apologized during the Des Moines Register debate, but he didn't, perhaps waiting for the moderator to provide a moment to show some feigned regret.
So he went to CNN immediately thereafter and asked for forgiveness.
Will that put Huckabee's anti-Mormon genie back in its bottle. I don't think so. "That which is said while drunk has been thought out beforehand," goes the old saying. In the modern media world, candidates for the presidency don't say careless things to the New York Times. It was a premeditated aside, an attempt to get a virus into circulation. It didn't work, but it did tell us a lot about Mike Huckabee.