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Huckabee's Surge Has a Sting

By Clarence Page

His name sounds like a chain of family restaurants.

His smile is big and deep-dimpled like the Campbell Soup kids'.

When Mike Huckabee smiles at you, you feel like smiling back.

But not always. The former Arkansas governor's recent surge in Iowa polls has wiped the smile from his fellow Republican presidential candidates' lips.

In a month he surged from the second tier to nose into a statistical tie for first place in this week's Des Moines Register poll. Of the likely caucus goers surveyed, Huckabee scored 29 percent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 24 percent and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani 13 percent.

That's got to be a jolt to Romney. He has been a frontrunner for weeks in Iowa, where he has spent more than $7 million. Huckabee has only spent about $300,000.

In terms of campaign finance, that's a great David vs. Goliath story. It warms the heart to see that a small-state governor can still rise up like Democratic Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia did in 1976 to beat the big-name, big-money candidates from bigger states.

Like Carter, Huckabee appears to have found his votes or, more accurately, his votes have found him. After months of failing to be excited very much by the rest of the Republican field, conservative evangelicals are gravitating to Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister.

For those who have not made up their minds by now, policies and issues often play a less important role than the visceral good-feelings factors: Who's more "likeable"? To whom can I "relate" more easily? With whom would I prefer to sit on a long train ride? Or as the satirical Onion recently asked in a lampoon of such judgments, who is "the candidate Americans would most like to get in a bar fight with?"

Huckabee's the kind of guy that a lot of people would like to go to prayer meetings with. Conservative evangelicals have played a critical role in Republican successes in recent years, especially for President Bush, who proudly put himself forward in 2000 as one of their own.

To his credit, Mike Huckabee has elevated the debate. I don't agree with his antiabortion stance, but I appreciate the concern he has shown not just for the unborn but also for people who are in financial, emotional and familial distress after they are born.

As a minister and politician, he's worked with poor and working-class families, not as a speechwriter's abstraction but as real folks with real needs.

He's thrown down a gauntlet against the budget slashers who want to cut services to the poor as a first resort, instead of their last.

He also stood up as a courageous voice of reason amid an anti-immigrant feeding frenzy during the latest GOP debate. We should not punish the children of illegal immigrants, he correctly argued, for something that their parents did.

Unfortunately, at least part of Huckabee's support appears to be coming his way for a very troubling reason: Religious bias.

Romney, as everyone must know by now, is a Mormon. For months, polls have shown Romney's religion to be a bigger handicap for him with voters than Hillary Clinton's gender or Barack Obama's biracial background. I attribute that sad development to widespread ignorance about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the formal name of the Mormon Church.

Some other Christians regard the Mormons as heretics, just as a lot of Sunnis regard Shiites, and vice versa. I have heard respectable Christian ministers declare on national television that Mormonism is "not a religion" but a "cult." That erroneous put-down reminds me of the author Tom Wolfe's observation: A "cult" is a religion that lacks political clout.

That's long been the story of ethnic and religious prejudice. We can be frightened about that which we don't know much about. Sen. John F. Kennedy used a speech to help himself get through a similar wall of ignorance about Catholics in 1960. Romney is trying to deal with ignorance about Mormons in a similar fashion, including a major speech this Thursday (December 6), without letting religion become the focus of his campaign.

We don't need to see any more sectarian divisions in American politics. We've seen too much ugliness from race cards, religion cards, ethnicity cards and gender cards already.

In these times of political and religious polarization, we Americans need to hear a serious voice of moral courage, and Mike Huckabee is imminently equipped to deliver it. In beating back the demon of religious prejudice, Huckabee should give Romney some help, not for the sake of either of their campaigns, but for the good of our country.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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