Presidential primary elections can be an ugly season for anyone who actually loves politics. It is a time when friendships can be strained, or worse over a candidate. It is a time where folks on the same broad teams are split. It is a time where coalitions are strengthened or torn asunder.
It's the latter that Mike Huckabee is on the path to doing. Almost a year ago, when I talked to him about his book, "From Hope to Higher Ground: 12 Stops to Restoring America's Greatness," no one seriously thought the former Arkansas governor would be anywhere near the front in any major poll on the road to the White House. Believe me, if I thought he was a potential front-runner, I wouldn't have wasted time asking him if he watches the television show "24."
But right now, the former Southern Baptist minister is a contender. The media spent months talking him up, saying he had the potential to shake up the presidential race, and their collective wish for the guitar-rockin' smooth talker has finally come true. In his role as an aspiring "Christian leader," as one of his campaign commercials put it, he is doing nothing to raise the level of the public conversation about those running for president and the issues facing our nation. He has an utter lack of knowledge on foreign-policy issues -- a reality he tries to laugh off -- and on the issue he knows most, religion, to say he is completely unhelpful would be profoundly understating the case.
As the media focuses on the fact that fellow candidate Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Huckabee has been presented a real opportunity to bring people together, to take the media obsession off of how religious evangelicals cannot tolerate a Mormon president. But instead of rising to the occasion, Huckabee makes things worse. In his most unfortunate moment, he played innocent with a New York Times reporter and asked, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
On the other hand, Romney strove to improve the political conversation along with his poll position. Told he should give a "Mormon speech," he instead gave a speech about us. He focused on religious liberty and America's founding. He focused on his commitment to the freedom upon which our nation was built. It's a message that Mormons and Southern Baptists can applaud, as well as Catholics, Jews, and, yes, even atheists. His speech was one that has the power to unite, unlike Huckabee's divisive, offensive approach. There was a day I was grateful to have Huckabee in the GOP debates; he was the face of a likable social conservative. But once he started playing religious hardball, he undid that good.
My colleagues and I at National Review just endorsed Romney for president. We wrote, "Unlike some other candidates in the race, Romney is a full-spectrum conservative: a supporter of free-market economics and limited government, moral causes such as the right to life and the preservation of marriage, and a foreign policy based on the national interest." In this way, he differs most starkly with Huckabee, a big-government tax-hiker who loses economic conservatives and those turned off by Jesus-and-Lucifer-were-brothers talk.
For all of his obstacles, Romney's business and gubernatorial record can appeal to economic conservatives. He's a natural social conservative in his home life who understands the importance of family and who, when faced with marriage and life issues as governor, came down on the Right side. As former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent put Romney's coalition position to me: "Gov. Romney has shown that he can use conservative principles to change attitudes as well as laws. He is the only candidate who has articulated a clear vision and policies for building a stronger America with a stronger military, economy and families. ... Our party cannot beat Hillary Clinton if we do not stand for all parts of the Reagan conservative coalition."
The Republican Party owes the American people the best candidate they can present. The anti-Mormon vote is not going to win anything for Republicans. A uniting, rallying message from a conservative candidate, with a record as a successful executive who knows and believes in the promise of America, can.