Huckabee Courts Evangelical Vote in Iowa

With less than one month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential contender former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is amassing the support of Iowa's Christian evangelicals.

Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, announced the names Tuesday in Iowa of more than 60 pastors endorsing his presidential bid, including Tim LaHaye, best-selling author of the Christian apocalyptic "Left Behind" series; LaHaye's wife, Beverly LaHaye, founder of Concerned Women for America; and Chuck Hurley, an influential Iowa conservative.

The announcement was the payoff of months of work by Huckabee staffer Matt Reisetter, 32, whose job it is to get Christian evangelicals in Iowa excited about Huckabee's bid for the GOP nomination.


"There's been a lot of evangelicals who really like the governor since the first time they were exposed to him," Reisetter said, " but there's a lot of pragmatists among the evangelical ranks — they want to support a winner."

Reisetter said now that Huckabee is surging in the polls — locked in a statistical dead heat with longtime Iowa front-runner former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — evangelicals feel more comfortable backing him.

"They see he's a winner and he aligns with them on issues that matter the most," Reisetter said.

Huckabee addressed a group of 300 pastors in Iowa Monday attending a religious conference and received more than three standing ovations.

God and the GOP

"The biggest ovation he got was when he said, 'God is not spelled G-O-P, and if the G-O-P ever leaves G-O-D then the G-O-P will lose m-e,'" said Jamie Johnson, owner of a Christian talk radio station in Iowa. Huckabee was the only presidential hopeful to speak at the event.

Huckabee's consistent anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage stance is a plus for many Christian evangelicals in Iowa. An estimated 40 percent of likely GOP caucus voters in Iowa consider themselves born-again Christians or Christian evangelical.

"He's pro-life, he's pro-God, pro-family and I think that's striking a chord with evangelical Christians here," said Kevin Lee, pastor of a 3,000-member congregation in Sioux City, Iowa.

Lee said he has narrowed his vote down to Huckabee and Romney. "The concern I have with Romney is his Mormon background," he said. "That's the only thing that really holds me back."

Romney's Mormonism

Romney will address his Mormon faith this week in a speech many are comparing to John F. Kennedy's iconic 1960 speech about his Catholic faith.

"Many evangelicals are very skeptical about Mormons. They don't understand it," said David Redlawsk, University of Iowa political scientist professor and director of University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll.

But other evangelicals say they're more concerned about Romney's previous support of abortion rights and gay marriage rights when he was the governor of Massachusetts.

"It's not so much his Mormon religion as his Johnny-come-lately position on so many of the issues that matter to the religious right," said Cary Covington, a Christian evangelical and professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

The former Arkansas governor has highlighted his faith and in recent weeks has run a television ad in Iowa that seeks to distinguish him from his rivals.

"Faith doesn't just influence me. It really defines me. I don't have to wake up every day wondering what do I need to believe," Huckabee says in the ad. "Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics. Not now, not ever." The words "Christian leader" appear on the screen.

Huckabee's Campaign Momentum

Huckabee was thought to be a second-tier candidate, until a solid performance at the Values Voters conference and an unexpected second-place win in the nonbinding Iowa Straw Poll boosted his campaign's momentum.

"While earlier in the year, evangelicals were in the 'don't know' category or tentatively supporting Romney, by mid-October poll, we started to see the switch," said Redlawsk, who directs the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll that routinely polls Iowans.

"The surge is really driven by evangelical Christians who had been waiting to figure out whether they was someone they really could support strongly," he said.

Huckabee has soared to 44 percent support among evangelical Protestants in Iowa, up from 16 percent in the summer, according to a November ABC News/Washington Post poll.

He now leads Romney by 2-1 among evangelicals, who account for nearly four in 10 likely caucus-goers, and leads Romney among all weekly church-goers, according to the ABC News poll.

Huckabee leads Romney by 36 percent to 22 percent among Iowa Republicans who take the most strongly anti-abortion view, saying it should be illegal in all cases.

Divine Intervention

Those who know Huckabee say the candidate talks about his faith a lot on the campaign trail.

"His faith really guides him, it's a large part of who he is," said Eric Woolson, Huckabee's Iowa campaign manager.

Speaking at the convocation ceremony last week at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Huckabee attributed his rise in the polls to divine intervention.

"There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one," Huckabee said. "It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people."

"There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much. And it has," he said.

Others, however, suggest Huckabee's surging support among white Christian Protestants has more to do with a Republican slate of candidates that leave Christian evangelicals cold.

"All of the other candidates have something that makes them objectionable to the religious right core, " Covington said.

The national leaders of the so-called Religious Right haven't coalesced behind a single candidate, and none have backed Huckabee.

"Huckabee has tapped into a great frustration among evangelicals," Johnson, the Iowa Christian talk radio station owner, said.

"The frustration is that they feel that the Republican Party treats the Evangelical Church in America like its mistress," he said. "In Mike Huckabee they hear someone and they see someone who does not come to them for support but actually comes from them."

Huckabee Scrutiny

But with the campaign momentum comes increased media scrutiny and attacks on Huckabee's record.

Huckabee has faced increasing questions about his faith and his disbelief in evolution.

"I don't think Mitt's been called upon to talk about his faith nearly as much as I've been called upon to talk about mine," Huckabee told ABC's "Nightline."

With Huckabee having relatively little money and a bare-bones staff of less than 15 in Iowa, spectators wonder whether he can maintain his momentum.

"The question is whether Huckabee can truly close the deal in the next few weeks," Redlawsk said. "He hasn't been hit on issues like immigration and taxes — that's only just starting."

ABC News' Kevin Chupka contributed to this report.