NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–National Journal’s Hotline blog called it “Huck-A-Mania.”
Other people previously had used that term — a spin-off of the pro wrestling term “Hulkamania — but it certainly applied to the buzz surrounding Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s performance at the CNN/YouTube debate Nov. 28. While Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were going toe-to-toe, Huckabee was grabbing the spotlight with one-liners and a performance that impressed several conservative political commentators. The Hotline blog compiled a list of quotes from various blogs and said “most conservative bloggers” believed Huckabee had won.
“I suspect that [Huckabee] has helped himself more than any other candidate on stage tonight,” National Review’s Byron York wrote. “He’s clearly on the rise in Iowa and South Carolina, and perhaps elsewhere, and my guess is that people who are considering supporting him liked what they saw tonight.”
American Spectator’s Jennifer Rubin agreed.
“Huckabee won the night,” she wrote. “He has mastered the art of appearing engaging and almost sweet but resolute on social issues…. Remarkably, except for a minor scuffle with Romney on college scholarships for illegal alien kids, no one went after him. The time has passed where the other contenders can just hope he’ll go away on his own and I suspect they will come after him next time.”
A darkhorse just months ago, Huckabee has drawn into a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa — which holds its caucus Jan. 3 — and is running a close second or third in South Carolina, which will hold its primary Jan. 19. One poll out of Florida (Jan. 29) even put Huckabee a surprising second, behind Giuliani.
The former Baptist minister is gaining support from evangelical leaders, too. The day of the debate he received a personal endorsement from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. That came one day after Huckabee’s campaign launched a “Faith and Family Values Coalition” of top leaders who support him. It currently has 30 members and is being co-chaired by former Southern Baptist Convention President James (Jimmy) T. Draper Jr. and Faith2Action President Janet Folger.
“I’ve known Mike ever since he was in seminary,” Draper told Baptist Press, referencing Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. “He attended our church [First Baptist in Euless] and was a regular attender. He was here a lot and I got to know him. That’s how we got to know each other, and we just stayed in touch. I preached for him when he was at Beech Street [First Baptist Church in Texarkana, Ark.].”
Draper said he doesn’t agree with Huckabee on every issue but agrees with him on the key issues and believes the former Arkansas governor will make decisions based on “integrity and honesty.” Draper said he has not been asked to campaign on the road for Huckabee. Part of his role, Draper said, will be to enlist other evangelical leaders to support Huckabee and join the coalition.
“He stands for the faith and the values that we believe are important for any public servant to have and we believe he is the strongest in the field to represent those values and to do the job that needs to be done,” Draper said.
Among other Southern Baptists in the coalition are former SBC Presidents Jerry Vines and Jack Graham, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin, Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd and Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver. Other notables are American Family Association founder Don Wildmon and Christian author Jerry Jenkins.
That doesn’t mean all conservative leaders have endorsed Huckabee. Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, endorsed Romney, as have Bob Jones III and Christian attorney Jay Sekulow. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed Fred Thompson.
Huckabee’s endorsements have paralleled his rise in the polls:
— The three most recent polls in Iowa have him and Romney essentially tied. An American Research Group poll put Romney ahead 28-27 percent while a Strategic Vision poll had Romney up 26-24 percent. A Rasmussen poll put Huckabee ahead 28-25 percent. All three were conducted in the final eight days of November.
— An American Research Group poll in South Carolina conducted Nov. 26-29 put Huckabee third at 18 percent, behind Giuliani (23 percent) and Romney (21). A Clemson poll done Nov. 14-27 had Huckabee in third (13 percent) behind Giuliani (17) and Thompson (15).
— An Insider Advantage poll in Florida Nov. 25-26 placed Huckabee in second at 17 percent, behind Giuliani’s 26 percent. A CNN poll conducted on the same days had Huckabee further back in fifth place at 9 percent.
Huckabee hopes that a strong showing in Iowa will build momentum for New Hampshire, which votes five days later on Jan. 8. He is gaining traction there, although Romney — who was governor of the border state Massachusetts — still leads. An American Research Group poll Nov. 26-29 put Romney at 36 percent, Giuliani at 22 percent and Huckabee at 13 percent.
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.