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Southern evangelicals boost Huckabee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Republican presidential candidate and former Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee rode a wave of evangelical support to revive his campaign Feb. 5, while John McCain picked up enough evangelical votes to continue his frontrunner status and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton split the vote of weekly churchgoers.

Super Tuesday saw the Republicans hold primaries or caucuses in 21 states and the Democrats hold contests in 22 states, and similar to the previous month, support by religious voters was critical.

On the Republican side, those who profess to be born-again or evangelical went with the winner in 10 of the 14 primaries where exit polling was conducted. (Polling was not done in Delaware or in caucus states.) On the Democratic side, weekly churchgoers sided with the victor in 14 of the 15 primaries that have been decided. The New Mexico race remains too close to call. (The major media outlets do not include a question for Democratic voters asking if they are self-identified evangelicals.)

Evangelicals, particularly those in the South, may have played the largest role for Huckabee, who had not won since the first-in-the-nation contest in Iowa. He began the day by winning the West Virginia caucus, then won primaries in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and his home state of Arkansas. His victories in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee were somewhat surprising: He had trailed in most opinion polls in all three in the final week.

“Over the past few days a lot of people have been trying to say that this is a two-man race. Well, you know what? It is, and we’re in it,” Huckabee said to cheering supporters, implying that instead of a McCain-Mitt Romney race, the GOP nomination now was down to McCain and Huckabee.

McCain left Super Tuesday with a commanding lead in the delegate count, leading some conservatives who have battled him on various issues over the years to express concern about the party being divided. But Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said pro-life and pro-family voters shouldn’t have “any reason to be uncomfortable” with McCain, Huckabee or Romney.

“McCain’s pro-life record is reliable though not spotless,” Land told Baptist Press. “His entire record in the Congress and the Senate, he’s been a pretty reliable pro-life vote. Huckabee, of course, is 24-carat gold on the pro-life and all the other social issues. And Romney, if you believe his conversion experience on the issues, is rock solid. Those of us who have had the opportunity to hear him personally explain it — most of us believe him. But, unfortunately, he can’t have a small-group discussion with all the evangelicals in America.”

The notion that McCain would destroy the Republican Party, Land said, is “nuts.”

“If Rudy Giuliani had been nominated it might been divided the party,” Land said, referring to the former mayor of New York who is pro-choice but dropped out of the race.

McCain, Huckabee and Romney all are “saying the right things” when it comes to pledges to appointing strict constructionist justices to the Supreme Court, Land said.

“That’s about all we have to go on,” he said, noting that McCain as a senator voted to confirm President Bush’s two nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. McCain also supported Robert Bork, President Reagan’s controversial nominee who was defeated.

Among key statistics from exit polls:

— Huckabee easily carried the evangelical vote in all four primaries he won, taking 47 percent of the born-again vote in Alabama, 69 percent in Arkansas, 43 percent in Georgia and 42 percent in Tennessee.

— Romney struggled among evangelicals in all four southern states won by Huckabee, finishing third behind McCain in Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, and second in Georgia, one point ahead of McCain. Romney’s struggles among southern evangelicals is significant, since they comprised between 62-77 percent of GOP voters in the four states.

— Of the 14 primary states where exit polling was conducted, Huckabee won the evangelical vote in six, McCain in four and Romney in four. In addition to the four states already mentioned, Huckabee won the evangelical vote in Oklahoma and Missouri, two states which McCain carried. McCain won among evangelicals in Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and New York — four states that he carried — while Romney won among born-agains in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Utah. McCain carried California and Connecticut.

— McCain finished first or second among evangelicals in 11 of 14 primaries. Fox News conducted a nationwide exit poll in 15 combined states showing self-described evangelicals favoring Huckabee with 34 percent, followed by Romney at 31 percent and McCain at 29 percent.

The exit polls also showed that the pro-life movement remains a significant part of the Republican Party: In 10 of the 14 primary states, a majority of GOP voters said they believe abortion should be illegal. (The Democratic exit poll questionnaire does not contain an abortion-related question.)

On the Democratic side, Clinton and Obama each won the vote among weekly churchgoers in eight primary states. Clinton won in that constituency in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Obama claimed weekly churchgoers in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and Utah. New Jersey was the only state where the winner in that category did not also win the overall vote total.

“The Democratic race didn’t achieve clarity or conclusion and gives every indication of going into the summer and maybe up to the convention,” Land said. “I’ve never seen one of those in my lifetime, unless you count sitting as a toddler on my mother’s lap watching the 1952 Republican convention on television.”

According to RealClearPolitics.com, Clinton leads Obama in the delegate count, 900-824, with 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination. Among Republicans, McCain has 682, Romney 244 and Huckabee 187. A candidate needs 1,191 delegates to win the GOP nomination.
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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