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Analysis: Huckabee taps evangelical enthusiasm

  • Story Highlights
  • Huckabee uses Christian conservatives in fresh, more-direct ways
  • He recruits newly active evangelical interest groups to his campaign
  • Now it's time to see if that approach will translate across the country
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By Rebecca Sinderbrand
CNN Washington Bureau
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(CNN) -- Mike Huckabee's bare-bones Iowa campaign may have been short on cash and full-time staff, but it was long on grassroots innovation -- and supported on the ground by an impressive array of evangelical networks.

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Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's support among Christian conservatives in Iowa was overwhelming.

The former Arkansas governor was, as he noted in virtually every stump speech, outspent by Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney in the state by millions. Yet he won in large part by engaging Christian conservatives -- a traditional Republican constituency -- in fresh, more-direct ways, and recruiting newly active evangelical interest groups to his campaign.

The strategy was a gamble, but it was based on one of the few certainties of the campaign universe: The key to a caucus victory does not necessarily lie in the number of overall supporters, but in the passion of their support.

And evangelicals were passionate about Huckabee. Video Watch Huckabee talk about his faith »

Christian conservatives are critical to any GOP presidential candidate, and Iowa is no exception. But Huckabee's support among those voters was overwhelming, in both numbers and in intensity: As many as 80 percent of his backers Thursday were self-identified evangelicals, according to entrance polls.

The ordained Baptist minister reached out to them, both openly and off the mainstream media's radar. His presidential run didn't stop him from taking time off the trail for private speeches at dozens of churches, or from equally unofficial meetings with controversial movement figures like televangelist Kenneth Copeland and activist Rick Scarborough. He also nabbed endorsements from Jerry Falwell Jr. (son of the late Moral Majority founder), Don Wildmon and Tim LaHaye.

Last month, the Iowa Family Policy Center (whose president, Chuck Hurley, endorsed Huckabee) planned a barnstorming tour that would fan out across the state in the weeks leading up to the caucuses. Unofficially, the endeavor -- which ultimately was hamstrung by logistical problems -- was not designed around a particular candidate. In reality, the effort was packed with Huckabee fans.

The tour was to be led by Scarborough, a minister and early Huckabee supporter. It was also scheduled to include Janet Folder, a conservative commentator who recently wrote a column suggesting that if she were elected president, Sen. Hillary Clinton would put Christians in prison for their beliefs.

Even without a single stop, the announcement of the tour was a symbolic win for Huckabee. The organizers involved have valuable Rolodexes packed with the names of pastors and local activists -- and the fact that the tour was to be led by fans of the former Arkansas governor sent an unmistakable message to members of the Iowa Family Policy Center and other conservative Christian organizations.

Beyond organizing veterans like the Iowa Family Policy Center, already-active groups have rallied behind a presidential candidate as never before. Parents who home-school their children -- a majority of whom are conservative Christians -- have made their presence felt on the political scene in recent years, pushing for a host of legislative changes.

This year, many have rallied to Huckabee's presidential candidacy, putting their grassroots muscle to work behind his White House bid, and creating an outreach effort that matched the more traditional one run by the campaign of Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.

They lacked some of the tools of modern campaigning that have become standard: advanced micro-targeting software to locate potential Huckabee supporters and specially designed mailers that cater to narrow demographic slices. They also were short of low-tech tools like lawn signs and bumper stickers.

But their efforts demonstrated the sort of organizing know-how -- individuals networking with neighbors, friends and family -- that tends to translate into the greatest caucus strength, on a night that is all about small group dynamics.

Long before Huckabee made the climb to first-tier candidate, these volunteers sent personal e-mails and set up campaign events in local restaurants. Often, Huckabee -- then a second-tier candidate -- would join them at these meetings.

Shortly before last year's Iowa straw poll, Michael Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, headed to Iowa to help rally volunteers to Huckabee's side, telling members of his group that it was "the first and most critical moment in the campaign." He encouraged friends and family to join him in his efforts. Thanks in part to their efforts, and those of the flat-tax advocacy group FairTax, the vastly under-funded Huckabee came in a stunning second place.

In the race's closing days, as Huckabee gained the funds to make the transition to higher-tier campaign trappings like television ads, he found ways to let these supporters know they were still a priority.

An estimated four in 10 Republican caucus-goers Thursday were members of the Iowa Christian Alliance, and many presidential hopefuls have addressed the group. But no other candidate appeared, as Huckabee did, in a campaign television spot talking about the defense of "our values" to an Iowa Christian Alliance crowd, with the organization's religiously significant logo on a banner behind them.

It's the kind of move that inspired loyalty and helped to create a formidable apparatus that passed its first major test Thursday night. Going into caucus voting, the activist network sent chills down the spines of opposing campaigns -- especially Romney's.

"This is all about a ground game," Romney's Iowa chairman, Doug Gross, told the Boston, Massachusetts, Globe earlier this week, as he fretted about the home-school activists and other Christian conservative Huckabee networks.

He noted a pre-caucus Des Moines Register poll that said about half the caucus-goers were likely to be evangelical Christians -- and correctly predicted Huckabee was likely to capture support from 70 to 80 percent of that group.

"If 50 percent of the turnout is evangelical Christians," he said Tuesday, "it would be very difficult for us to finish first in that kind of situation." He was right.

Nationally, movement leaders are taking notice. "The former governor may not become the Republican nominee, and I have not endorsed him, but what happened there last night was evidence of an energized and highly motivated conservative community," said Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, in a statement sent Friday to The Associated Press. "Not bad for a supposed bunch of demoralized, depressed, disillusioned and disengaged Reaganites."

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But New Hampshire voters, as Romney staffers have pointed out, are far more likely to vote on fiscal matters than on faith -- and Huckabee is roughly tied for third with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in most recent polls of GOP primary voters. Video Watch if the Huckabee boom can continue into New Hampshire »

The question for Huckabee -- and his GOP opponents -- is whether evangelical enthusiasm there can translate into the kind of turnout that can keep him in contention as the race moves out of the Midwest. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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