McCain, Huckabee and the Evangelicals

Robert Novak

5/12/2008 12:01:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- John McCain, who has spent the last two months trying to consolidate right-wing support as the Republican candidate for president, has a problem of disputed dimensions with a vital component of the conservative coalition: the evangelicals. The biggest question is whether Mike Huckabee is part of the problem or the solution for McCain.

An element of the Christian community is not reconciled to McCain's candidacy but instead regards the prospective presidency of Barack Obama in the nature of a Biblical plague visited upon a sinful people. These militants look at former Baptist preacher Huckabee as "God's candidate" running for president in 2012. Whether they can be written off as merely a troublesome fringe group depends on Huckabee's course.

Huckabee's announced support of McCain is unequivocal, and he is regarded in the McCain camp as a friend and ally. But credible activists are spreading the word that Huckabee secretly allies himself with the bitter-end opposition. That hardly seems possible considering his public backing, but critics of Huckabee's 10 years as governor of Arkansas say he is all too capable of playing a double game.

McCain and Huckabee were friendly rivals in this year's Republican competition, sharing contempt for Mitt Romney. Indeed, McCain could not be where he is today had not Huckabee mobilized born-again voters to upset Romney in the Iowa caucuses. All efforts by Romney to overtake McCain in conservative Southern state primaries were stifled by Huckabee's success in those contests. Huckabee quickly endorsed McCain once he clinched the nomination. They bonded publicly in Little Rock, Ark., April 24 during McCain's recent tour.

Nevertheless, reports out of the evangelical community dispute Huckabee's support. One experienced, credible activist in Christian politics who would not let his name be used told me Huckabee in personal conversation with him embraced the concept that an Obama presidency might be what the American people deserve. That fits what has largely been a fringe position among evangelicals that the pain of an Obama presidency is in keeping with the Bible's prophecy.

According to this activist, at the heart of the let-Obama-win movement is longtime Virginia conservative leader Michael Farris -- the nation's leading home-school advocate, who is now chancellor of Patrick Henry College (in Purcellville, Va.) for home-schooled students. Best known politically as the losing Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1993, Farris is regarded as one of the hardest-edged Christian politicians. He is reported in evangelical circles to promote the Biblical justification for an Obama plague-like presidency.

In conversations with me, Huckabee and Farris both denied advocating that an Obama presidency should be inflicted on the country. Huckabee was enthusiastic in his support for McCain, noting how well they had bonded during their primary competition.

Farris is another matter. A vigorous supporter of Huckabee for president, he has not endorsed McCain and may never do so (though he quickly adds he never would vote for Obama or Hillary Clinton). "I am concerned about what judges he (McCain) may name," Farris told me, "and the test will be who he selects for vice president." He made it clear that Huckabee would be his choice, and ruefully adds, "I understand he is not under consideration."

At McCain headquarters, there is no doubt expressed about Huckabee's loyalty. "I feel we haven't used him (Huckabee) enough," McCain campaign manger Rick Davis told me. McCain's strategists are more concerned that the libertarian Rep. Ron Paul has not abandoned his candidacy, keeps fighting for delegates and says he will not endorse McCain.

Even taking Huckabee's professions of support for McCain at face value, he is not leaving politics for the lecture circuit. He has formed the Huck PAC to back Republican candidates, his supporters have established a Website (Huck4America.com), and Huckabee backers are behind the Government Is Not God PAC to discourage McCain from naming Romney as his vice president.

Mike Huckabee has emerged from obscurity to become a major factor in American politics leading evangelical Christians. The McCain campaign counts on him to energize supporters who would rather wait for Huckabee 2012, not to encourage those dreams.