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Young evangelicals embrace Huckabee

Much of the national leadership of the Christian conservative movement has turned a cold shoulder to the Republican presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee. But that has only fired up Brett and Alex Harris.
Image: Mike Huckabee Campaigning in South Carolina
Mike Huckabee, campaigning in South Carolina, is coming off a victory in the Iowa Republican Caucus and a third-place finish in the New Hampshire Republican Primary. Michal Czerwonka / EPA
/ Source: The New York Times

Much of the national leadership of the Christian conservative movement has turned a cold shoulder to the Republican presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee, wary of his populist approach to economic issues and his criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. But that has only fired up Brett and Alex Harris.

The Harris brothers, 19-year-old evangelical authors and speakers who grew up steeped in the conservative Christian movement, are the creators of Huck’s Army, an online network that has connected 12,000 Huckabee campaign volunteers, including several hundred in Michigan, which votes Tuesday, and South Carolina, which votes Saturday.

They say they like Mr. Huckabee for the same reason many of their elders do not: “He reaches outside the normal Republican box,” Brett Harris said in an interview from his home near Portland, Ore.

The brothers fell for Mr. Huckabee last August when they saw him draw applause on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” for explaining that he believed in a Christian obligation to care for prenatal “life” and also education, health care, jobs and other aspects of “life.” “It is a new kind of evangelical conservative position,” Brett Harris said. Alex Harris added, “And we are not going to have to be embarrassed about him.”

Candidacy threats to divide movement
Mr. Huckabee, who was a Southern Baptist minister before serving as governor of Arkansas, is the only candidate in the presidential race who identifies himself as an evangelical. But instead of uniting conservative Christians, his candidacy is threatening to drive a wedge into the movement, potentially dividing its best-known national leaders from part of their base and upending assumptions that have held the right wing together for the last 30 years.

His singular style — Christian traditionalism and the common-man populism of William Jennings Bryan, leavened by an affinity for bass guitar and late-night comedy shows — has energized many young and working-class evangelicals. Their support helped his shoestring campaign come from nowhere to win the Iowa Republican caucus and join the front-runners in Michigan, South Carolina and national polls.

And Mr. Huckabee has done it without the backing of, and even over the opposition of, the movement’s most visible leaders, many of whom have either criticized him or endorsed other candidates.

“Some of them have been openly hostile to him, and others merely lukewarm in their hostility,” said John Green, a scholar with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Cultural conservatism to economic populism
If Mr. Huckabee can continue to galvanize evangelicals around his novel message while attracting other Republicans and perhaps independents, he will do more than advance his own campaign. He will also challenge the establishment of the Christian conservative political movement.

“To the extent that Governor Huckabee succeeds in advancing this new agenda that combines cultural conservatism with an economic and foreign affairs populism,” Mr. Green said, “it could undermine the existing Christian conservative political leaders and their organizations.”

After Iowa, many evangelical political leaders hailed Mr. Huckabee’s victory as a resurgence. “Not bad for a supposed bunch of demoralized, depressed, disillusioned and disengaged Reaganites,” James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family said in a statement.

But Dr. Dobson and most of his allies stopped short of commending Mr. Huckabee in particular, and Tony Perkins, president of the Dobson-affiliated Family Research Council, almost seemed to explain away the victory.

“What happened in Iowa was a strong reaction from social conservatives to the idea that the Republican establishment was pushing Rudy Giuliani, who is anathema” because of his support for abortion rights, Mr. Perkins said. “What we saw in Iowa was a shootout between the core evangelical base and the G.O.P. establishment, and unfortunately I think Mitt Romney got caught in the cross-fire.”

While Dr. Dobson and Mr. Perkins remain on the sidelines, many in the old guard are actively backing Mr. Huckabee’s rivals: Pat Robertson is for Mr. Giuliani, Gary Bauer for Fred D. Thompson, and Paul Weyrich, a founder of the movement, for Mr. Romney. The few national conservative Christian political advocates who have rallied to Mr. Huckabee say they are dismayed by the reluctance of their best-known leaders to do the same.

“Some of my Christian friends, just like some of my not-so-Christian friends, have become a little too Washingtonian,” said Rick Scarborough, an aspiring successor to the previous generation of conservative Christian leaders. He recently argued that his allies were wrong to balk at Mr. Huckabee’s turn toward environmentalism and “social justice.”

“Can you imagine Jesus ignoring the plight of the disenfranchised and downtrodden while going after the abortionist?” Mr. Scarborough wrote on the conservative Web site

But the lack of enthusiasm at the top of the movement has not deterred hundreds of grass-roots activists in Michigan and South Carolina who, like the Harrises, are trying to make up for the Huckabee campaign’s lack of organization and resources.

Efforts for evangelical voters
In Michigan, the Huckabee campaign had spent no money, hired no staff and had no office until last Wednesday, six days before the primary. But Gary Glenn, a conservative Christian advocate based in Midland, Mich., has been leading an informal effort to turn out evangelical voters. Some pollsters expect them to make up as much as 40 percent of the state’s primary voters this year.

Last week, Mr. Glenn lined up 50 local pastors to attend a closed-door breakfast with Mr. Huckabee in Grand Rapids. And he has compiled an e-mail list of more than 600 volunteers — many in Internet groups that Huck’s Army is connecting — who have been using church directories to make phone calls, courting local pastors and leafleting church parking lots .

“Recruit volunteers to stand this Sunday on public sidewalks across the street from the parking lots of the biggest evangelical churches you can find,” Mr. Glenn urged in a recent e-mail message.

Mr. Glenn said Mr. Huckabee’s populist side had also provided him with some unusual allies: the International Association of Machinists has endorsed him. Its state membership is estimated to be one-third Republican. Because of a scheduling dispute, there is no competition in the Democratic primary in Michigan this year, and voters can cast their ballot in either party’s contest.

Huckabee volunteers are also working hard to court Catholics in Michigan, said Jeffrey Quesnelle, a 20-year-old conservative Catholic who is now the Michigan coordinator for Huck’s Army. (The Harris brothers have signed up state coordinators in 45 states.) Among other things, Mr. Quesnelle said, volunteers have been distributing copies of articles from the Web site Catholic Online, a hub for dedicated church members, praising Mr. Huckabee’s opposition to abortion rights and his empathy for the poor as consistent with the social teachings of the church.

Mr. Huckabee’s candidacy could signal “the fall of the old ‘religious right’ and the emergence of a true populist movement which crosses the old, tired lines and labels,” a Catholic Online column recently said.

In South Carolina, a make-or-break state for Mr. Huckabee and one where evangelicals are expected to make up more than a third of the Republican primary voters, the Huckabee campaign had only a state manager and two paid staff members until about two weeks ago.

But more than 500 people, many of them young evangelicals, have signed up for online Huckabee meet-up groups, said Christian Hine, 30, the state coordinator of the Huck’s Army effort. Unaided by the campaign, volunteers have borrowed church directories and bought their own phone lists to try to identify likely Huckabee voters, Mr. Hine said, and even paid to print their own Huckabee signs when the campaign ran out.

In November, volunteers associated with Huck’s Army raised about $1,550 to hire a plane towing a “Huckabee for President —” banner to circle over the South Carolina-Clemson football game, one of the biggest sporting events in the state. (Among other endeavors, members of the group also pitched in about $500 to buy pizza, balloons and doughnuts for Huckabee volunteers before the Iowa caucus.)

“Huckabee is a change for the conservative Christian movement, and a welcome one,” said Jennifer Stec, a 34-year-old homemaker in Lexington, S.C., who built a network of about 400 Huckabee volunteers. She started with her church Sunday school class, she said, and later printed her own Huckabee business cards and passed them out at the supermarket.

Risks in having secular allies
Alice Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. Huckabee, said the campaign “would love to have the support of the generals” of the Christian conservative movement, “but we are more than happy to have the support of the troops, and that seems to be what is happening here.” Ms. Stewart said the Harris brothers were especially “instrumental,” pointing out that they helped enlist the actor Chuck Norris, who now accompanies Mr. Huckabee on the trail.

Since Mr. Huckabee’s success in Iowa, however, his campaign has faced a barrage of attacks on his conservative credentials. Rush Limbaugh has accused him of “class warfare.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page has called him “religious left.” And his Republican rivals have escalated their criticism. In a debate on Thursday, Mr. Thompson called Mr. Huckabee a “Christian leader” who would support “liberal economic policies” and “liberal foreign policies.”

Mr. Huckabee insists that he is conservative on those issues, saying that he has pledged not to raise taxes and that he lowered many in Arkansas. His advisers say his populism will attract enough disaffected middle-class Republicans to make up for any hawkish or antitax votes he loses.

But some Christian conservatives say that no matter the energy at their grass roots, the animosity of their secular allies may well doom his campaign.

Richard Land, the top public policy official of the Southern Baptist Convention, argued that just as small-government and foreign-policy conservatives could not win a primary without evangelicals, “I don’t think evangelicals can win without most of the rest of those coalitions.