TIGERVILLE, S.C. (BP)–The North Greenville University campus was abuzz in anticipation of hearing Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
But three days later, the excitement surrounding the former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister –- at the Baptist-affiliated university and elsewhere in South Carolina — fell shy of a win in South Carolina’s Jan. 19 primary.
Instead, Sen. John McCain continued his Lazarus-like ascent by winning the state’s GOP primary Saturday after nearly every pundit had crossed off his presidential bid a few months ago. McCain, having waited eight years for the South Carolina win after losing to George W. Bush in 2000, now has added momentum heading into the Florida primary on Jan. 29 and Super Tuesday primaries in more than 20 states on Feb. 5.
At North Greenville University, Huckabee said he sensed “amazing support all around the state” and projected in an interview with Baptist Press that, with a win in South Carolina, “I’ll be the frontrunner.”
Among evangelicals, Huckabee garnered 43 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll, while McCain received 27 percent, Fred Thompson 15 percent and Mitt Romney 11 percent.
Overall, evangelicals account for 28 percent of the registered voters in this buckle of the Bible Belt.
Greenville County GOP chairman Samuel Harms had said evangelicals like himself are “finding their voice in Mike Huckabee. Most of the calls I’ve received were for Huckabee.” Most evangelicals in the South, Harms projected, “are going with him no matter what.”
Likewise, Lisa Van Riper, an NGU professor and president of South Carolina Citizens for Life, had said evangelicals are “looking for a voice, someone who can articulate their concerns.” Her organization, however, had endorsed Thompson as such a candidate — “the strongest candidate, strongest pro-life candidate to go against Rudy Giuliani,” the former mayor of New York City. But Thompson finished third in the primary.
Regarding Thompson, Harms had noted, “He did not spend enough time here…. I fear for him that it’s too little too late.”
That fear was realized, but the state’s evangelicals have concerns about the other candidates as well.
Romney placed fourth in South Carolina. He had been first in the polls for months until Huckabee and McCain surpassed him within the last two weeks.
Despite endorsements by Bob Jones III and Robert Taylor at Bob Jones University, Romney was unable to persuade many evangelicals to support his campaign. David Gallamore, senior pastor of Rock Springs Baptist Church in Easley, said, “It is a good possibility that [Romney’s Mormonism] would hamper” his campaign among various evangelical pastors.
Some support is flowing “away from Romney due to his Mormonism,” agreed Frank Page, Southern Baptist Convention president and senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors.
Regarding McCain, Van Riper said she views him as an acceptable candidate because of his pro-life record, while describing Giuliani’s acceptance of abortion and homosexuality as unacceptable.
But Harms disagreed. “[McCain] has criticized conservatives, opposed their issues. Nobody is bringing out McCain’s [recent] record because the media had counted him out.”
McCain has had a somewhat split record on pro-family issues, voting against a federal marriage amendment twice while leaving open the possibility he could support it if the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down. McCain backed Arizona’s proposed marriage amendment and even appeared in commercials urging support for it. On other issues, he supports embryonic stem cell research, although he opposes Roe v. Wade and says he would stand up for the “rights of the unborn” if president and nominate Supreme Court justices like John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Harms said, for now, McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” and his “tough talk on terror and strong bio [as a war hero] are working for him.”
The difference between McCain and Huckabee for many evangelicals is trust, said Tony Beam, a North Greenville University vice president. Huckabee’s character, Beam said, “is my default mode.”
“I can support him,” Van Riper said, though cautioning that this trust leaves evangelicals “tempted to not review [Huckabee’s] record.”
Page echoed a general support for Huckabee with a similar caution. “I do think that evangelicals are moving toward Huckabee,” Page said. “He is closest to most evangelicals and Baptists in faith and moral issues” but concerns exist over “foreign, economic and immigration policies,” Page said.
On fiscal matters, where his conservatism has been challenged, Huckabee told Baptist Press, “As much as possible to deal with social needs, the church is best. The federal government is the least effective and should be the last resort when things break down.”
On immigration, Huckabee became the first major presidential candidate to sign Americans for Better Immigration’s “No Amnesty Pledge,” which states, “I pledge to oppose amnesty or any other special path to citizenship for the millions of foreign nationals unlawfully present in the United States.”
The pledge continues: “As President, I will fully implement enforcement measures that, over time, will lead to the attrition of our illegal immigrant population. I also pledge to make security of our borders a top priority of my administration.”
In contrast, as governor, Huckabee fought against his Democrat-led legislature to allow tuition breaks for illegal-alien college students, according to The Washington Times.
Page told Baptist Press, “Everybody makes shifts. It is incumbent upon Mike Huckabee to state clearly where he was, where he is today and where he changed.”
Giuliani, meanwhile, generates the most active opposition among evangelicals. Giuliani, who did not compete in the Iowa caucuses and in the early primary states, is waiting to fight in Florida on Jan. 29, Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 and then the rest of the states.
Harms said he does not believe Giuliani can win the GOP nomination outright, “but if he wins California and New York, there will be a brokered convention.” At such a convention, “I [could not] and many other evangelicals [could not] support Giuliani.”
Page said he agrees with James Dobson of Focus on the Family that a united front against Giuliani is needed and that “evangelicals can realistically defeat him.” Even a ticket with Giuliani on top and Huckabee for vice president “would be problematic for Dr. Dobson and myself,” Page said.
Huckabee, during his concession speech Saturday night, said that he hadn’t lost, but “the clock ran out on us.”
Reggie Ecarma is an associate professor in mass communication at North Greenville University and is a part-time professor at Furman University, University of South Carolina (Upstate) and Andersonville University in South Carolina. He holds a Ph.D. in political communication and two master’s degrees, in public policy and mass communication, from Regent University in Virginia.