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msnbc.com
updated 12/4/2007 10:24:51 PM ET 2007-12-05T03:24:51

When you sit down with Mike Huckabee and his inner circle, as I did the other day, you know at once that his is a tough, savvy crew – fast becoming as potent in the pews of the evangelical churches as George W. Bush’s was in 2000 and 2004. Having vaulted to the lead in Iowa, Huckabee now is aiming for his next big score: an endorsement from Dr. James Dobson, the king of Christian radio.

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Huckabee is working it hard – and nearing his goal. In Iowa, a group of pastors gathered in private to hear the Huckabee message and a cheerleading speech by Tim LaHaye, evangelist and author of the “Left Behind” series, who is one of Dobson’s oldest friends and allies. The Dobson camp wouldn’t comment, but others I have talked to in the movement said “Doctor Dobson” is likely to come aboard soon.

Rumors flew a month ago that an endorsement was imminent – and it never happened. Now it looks like it will. “Dobson isn’t eager to do it, he’d rather hang back, but Huckabee’s campaign impresses a lot of people around him (Dobson),” said a source with ties to both camps.

In a post-debate holding room in St. Petersburg, I asked Huckabee to tell me the most important thing he had learned as a Southern Baptist minister (he pastured two congregations) that he was now applying to politics. “It’s the range of human experience I saw,” he said. “People tell their pastors things they don’t tell anyone else. You see the depths of despair and trouble that no one else is in a position to see.”

Video: Huckabee on the rise It was a moving statement, but only part of the story. Arguably the most important thing Huckabee learned were the organizational, motivational and speaking skills he is now applying to politics. Twenty years ago, Dr. Pat Robertson became the first modern ordained minister (though he never had a congregation) to run for president. He was a path breaker.

Huckabee is the far more experienced Baby Boomer version, built from the ground up in the 80s seeing little operational distinction between the worlds of Caesar and Jesus Christ. He learned media outreach from a TV preacher – James Robison of Texas – and applied a pastor’s eloquence and a revival tent drive to politics once he decided to seek office in his native Arkansas.

Unlike Robertson, Huckabee built himself from the ground up for both the pulpit and politics.  In his various campaigns, he has employed some of the best, and toughest advisory talent available, from Dick Morris (who had another client in Arkansas named Clinton) to Gary Maloney, a fabled “oppo” guy, to his current crew that includes campaign manager Chip Saltsman of Nashville and media man Robert Vickers.

These are guys who have been around the block.

Are church and state too closely combined in the Huckabee campaign? In 2000, Bush and Karl Rove were able to lock up the entire evangelical movement BEFORE the race really began (in part by buying off John Ashcroft.) 

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But Huckabee is not only a former preacher by trade he is a former preacher hard at work wooing the churches in full view of the national press corps in the midst of the campaign.

Rather than hide that fact in any way, he has made it the very centerpiece of his campaign. In his Iowa ad, he calls himself a “Christian leader.” He could have said “faith leader” or some other formulation. The words he chose were a deliberate attack on Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism is viewed by many evangelicals as beyond the pale of Christianity.

The words “Christian leader” carry great power – but also great risk. If you claim to be one, you have to live like one, and campaign like one. Is an attack ad worthy of a Christian leader?

We’re about to find out.

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