DES MOINES — Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's rise may have been a surprise to many, but not to a tightly knit group of social conservatives with something fundamental in common.
Thousands of evangelical Christians who school their children at home have found a candidate they can support in Huckabee, and they provide the former Arkansas governor's outsider campaign with hundreds of volunteers.
Although not monolithic, home-schooling Republicans are united by core principles, especially rejection of public schools in favor of their own religious-based teaching. Likewise, they are civically active and well connected to evangelical churches, themselves a powerful political network.
As a small subset of social conservatives, home-school activists are too few to account for Huckabee's entire vault to contender in the Republican field.
But in Iowa, home-school activists number in the thousands and could make the difference in a close contest Jan. 3, when Iowa's precinct caucuses kick off the presidential nominating process.
"They stand for the same things, and they trust each other," Christine Hurley, a Pleasant Hill Republican active in the state's home-school network, said of Huckabee and home-schoolers. "When you understand he's a Baptist minister, you don't have to ask what he stands for."
When Huckabee returned to Iowa last week, he had climbed 20 percentage points since Labor Day in polls of Iowa Republican caucusgoers.
An Iowa campaign staff of just 14 met him. He also encountered a pack of national media trying to determine how Huckabee had leapfrogged better-financed candidates Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson to take the lead in The Des Moines Register''s Iowa Poll. Huckabee raised only $1 million in the third quarter of 2007.
"Where we don't have offices and paid staff, we have something even better," Huckabee said in Des Moines last week. "We have an army of ordinary people who are out there not because someone is paying them to love me."
Huckabee's surge appears to be built on popularity with the most loyal social conservatives and their newfound belief that he could win Iowa's caucuses.
Vicki Crawford, a home-school mother from Granger, Iowa, said she liked Huckabee's policy profile and relaxed demeanor after meeting him last spring. But she was unsure if the little-known candidate could gather the support to compete with the Republican field's heavyweights.
Michael Farris' endorsement of Huckabee in May, meaningless to much of the voting public, sent a strong signal to Crawford and other Christian home-school families. Farris is founder and chairman of the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association and a national figure for Christian home-school families.
"That was sort of the icing on the cake," Crawford said of Farris' endorsement."It's one thing for people to be willing to come out and vote," Farris said. "It's another for people to be willing to work, and home-schoolers will not only vote, but they'll work."
The Iowa Department of Education does not keep track of home-school households. But estimates from the Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute put the number of Christian home-school families in Iowa at roughly 7,500 to 9,500. Nationwide, the institute estimates about 2 million children are home-schooled.
As a group, they are disproportionately active in politics, partly out of strong opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage, core positions for socially conservative Republicans.
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor before entering politics, is viewed by social conservatives as solidly with them on these issues while some of his better-known Republican opponents have faced questions.
He also named a home-school activist to Arkansas' state board of education while he was governor and supported school choice, key points endearing him to home-schoolers.
Huckabee's recent rise is partly because of uncertainty among some Iowa activists about Romney's social conservative credentials, Huckabee's favorable reviews in nationally televised debates, Brownback's departure from the race and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's lackluster entry into the race, said Chuck Laudner, the Iowa Republican Party's executive director.
"Had Fred come out here and been that fire-in-the-belly guy, we wouldn't be talking about Mike Huckabee," said Laudner, who is not endorsing any candidate. "Fred really opened the door for Mike Huckabee."
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