Clift: God and Mike Huckabee

The morning after this week's Republican debate in New Hampshire, five of the 10 lesser contenders found themselves on the same early morning flight from Manchester to Washington. Sleep-deprived and grumpy that they hadn't gotten their fair share of camera time, they wondered: if something happened to the plane, how would the media report the news?  They settled on this formulation: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney campaigned in New Hampshire today, and by the way, five of the other candidates perished in an airliner.

Gallows humor aside, these second- and third-tier contenders have a point. How will they ever get known if the Big Three—soon to be Big Four, when Fred Thompson enters the race—crowd out everybody else? Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, one of the also-rans, blames money, or lack thereof, for his difficulty in breaking through. An ordained Baptist minister, he embodies the social values of the Republican base, yet polls show almost half of religious conservatives support Giuliani, whose personal life and policy positions conflict with their core principles. If Giuliani were to win the nomination, it would transform the political landscape of a party that achieved electoral victory by bringing more evangelicals to the polls.

Whether the Republican Party is ready to steer itself out of the cul-de-sac of social issues is an open question. At an event in Washington Wednesday sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Huckabee good-naturedly complained that at the three Republican debates held so far, "All the God questions get tossed to me." He has acquitted himself well, eloquently defending his opposition to evolution while challenging the relevance of the question to the job he's seeking. "I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book," he said in New Hampshire. To his dismay, there was not one question in the debate on education or even taxes, the cornerstone of the GOP—leaving the impression of a party disconnected from the issues most American families are concerned with.

There are millions of people that don't believe in the theory of evolution, and there are many more millions, myself included, who wouldn't want a creationist to become president. After the Bush years, voters should be wary of anybody with strongly held beliefs that could take precedence over facts and reality, whether it has to do with Iraq, global warming or, yes, evolution. Asked by a representative of the Baptist press if he believes he is a descendant of a primate, Huckabee said no, that he believes God created man in his image, and that "God is in the miracles business—he can do anything he wishes to do." Asked by a British reporter if he is aware how "scary" his many references to Christianity sound to people around the world, Huckabee said that when he was first elected governor in Arkansas, people worried he might replace the Capitol dome with a steeple and spend all his time trying to stop abortion and bring Bible reading into the public schools.

In fact, he governed as a centrist and even raised taxes to pay for a children's health program. All the emphasis on his religious beliefs is obscuring what could be his real appeal to voters, not only evangelicals, but the broader population.  Huckabee's problem could be that he comes across more as a pastor than a politician at a time when even Republican voters may be ready to look beyond faith-based leadership.

"I'm not as predictable a Republican as people like to think of Republicans," he says. He did not grow up a child of privilege. He is the first in his family to graduate high school, and he was in college, he says, before he discovered soap wasn't supposed to hurt when you took a shower. His fireman father worked as a mechanic on his days off, and the harsh Lava soap he used to remove grease contained ground pumice.

Before entering the presidential race, Huckabee shed over a hundred pounds, transforming himself from couch potato to marathon runner after being diagnosed with diabetes. Everybody across the political spectrum welcomes his evangelism on healthy living. Talking about weight issues might be a better ticket for him to gain traction in the coming months than touting his religious-right credentials. Huckabee argues that social conservatives are on the brink of becoming irrelevant in this election cycle unless they get back into the game. Maybe they are in the game, and they're changing the rules. It's been 30 years since Ronald Reagan ushered in the rise of the religious right, and the party may be ready to transform itself. Huckabee is unlikely to win the GOP nomination, but he is being talked about as a vice-presidential contender. He'd make a great guest on Oprah talking about his book, "Quit Digging Your Grave With A Knife And Fork."