WASHINGTON — When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee ran for president eight years ago, he scored a surprising upset in the opening Iowa GOP caucuses by appealing to the state’s evangelical voters.
This time, he’ll have a lot more company.
On Tuesday (May 5), Huckabee, 59, formally announced his bid for the Republican nomination in 2016 from his hometown of Hope, Ark. He portrayed himself as an economic populist, a protector of Social Security, a defender of Israel and the scourge of Iran. A former Southern Baptist minister and Fox News talk-show host, he also touched on issues that particularly resonate with many conservative Christians, including his opposition to same-sex marriage, his support of religious freedom laws and his concern about the country’s moral standards.
“This country could only be explained by the providence of Almighty God,” he declared, noting he had accepted Jesus as his savior at Bible camp when he was 10. His campaign announcement at the University of Arkansas Community College started with a prayer.
All of the major Republican contenders oppose abortion and oppose recognizing a constitutional right for same-sex marriage, so-called values issues that are particularly important to many Christian conservatives. What’s different this time are more concerted efforts by a half-dozen other contenders to target evangelical voters by talking openly about their faith and its importance in their lives and approach to governing.
One irony: The profusion of appeals underscores the continued influence of born-again Christians in the Republican Party — but it also could dilute their influence by dividing their votes among multiple candidates.
At the Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa, last month, nine prospective presidential candidates addressed a forum sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“One thing Huck does have, he has a Rolodex of many thousands of Iowans who supported in the past,” Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa coalition, said in an interview. But Scheffler, who doesn’t plan to endorse a candidate, said that Iowa voters, “even if they supported somebody in the past, they kind of wipe the slate clean and want to begin to hear from all the candidates.”
Born-again voters are a powerful part of the Republican electorate, especially in two of the states that hold early contests. In Iowa, about six in 10 GOP caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians in 2008 and 2012. In South Carolina, 65 percent of Republican primary voters were evangelicals.
Their support helped Huckabee win the Iowa caucuses decisively in 2008 (and to carry seven succeeding states) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum win them narrowly in 2012. In both contests, their rivals made more limited efforts to reach out to evangelical voters.
This time, though, the first contender to formally announce his campaign, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, chose to do so at Liberty University, which calls itself the largest Christian university in the world. He told those gathered at the school in Lynchburg, Va., that his father had been saved “by the transformative love of Jesus Christ” and noted that his wife was the daughter of missionaries in Africa.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who announced her candidacy Monday, says she relied on her faith when her stepdaughter died of a drug overdose. “Without my complete conviction that a loving God had been with Lori, and was with our family as we buried her, I am not sure how I would have coped,” she wrote in “Rising to the Challenge,” a memoir published Tuesday by Sentinel.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Iowa forum that “the single most important moment in my life is the moment that I found Jesus Christ.” Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry also talk about the importance of prayer in their lives.
But it is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who may be able to claim the strongest connection of all in the Hawkeye State. In tiny Plainfield, Iowa, he is still remembered by those of a certain age as the toddler son of the minister at First Baptist Church.
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