POLITICS
03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Huckabee Revolution: Evangelicals At The GOP Gate

Mike Huckabee's insurrectionist presidential campaign is defying the determination of the Republican establishment to restrict the selection of the party's nominee to pre-approved candidates.

At the same time that the ordained Baptist minister has surged to the forefront of the field not only in Iowa but in South Carolina and Florida, powerful conservative players -- from Bob Novak to the National Review to the Wall Street Journal -- are voicing outrage.

"A comprehensive apostasy against core Republican beliefs," fumed George Will, so infuriated that on December 20 the normally impeccable stylist used the same phrase twice in one paragraph: "Huckabee's radical candidacy," Will continued, "broadly repudiates core Republican policies such as free trade, low taxes, the essential legitimacy of America's corporate entities and the market system allocating wealth and opportunity."

Huckabee is capitalizing on his role as a revolutionary, reveling in the success of his populist appeal to Christian and evangelical voters, many of whom see themselves as victimized by the privileged classes on both sides of the aisle.

On the December 19 Today Show, Huckabee was asked to respond to a National Review column titled "Huckacide" in which editor Rich Lowry argued that a Huckabee "nomination would represent an act of suicide by his party."

Why such hostility from the venerable conservative publication?

"Because they don't control me," Huckabee shot back. "I'm not one of theirs. I'm not one of those guys that just owe my soul to the people on Wall Street. I'm not a wholly owned subsidiary."

Huckabee then took exception to the treatment of Christian conservatives by the GOP mainstream: "There's a sense in which all these years the evangelicals have been treated very kindly by the Republican Party. They wanted us to be a part of it. And then one day one of us actually runs and they say, `Oh, my gosh, now they're serious.' They don't want to just show up and vote, they actually would want to be a part of the discussion."

Huckabee not only lacks endorsements from Republican Party principals, but also from the most prominent leaders of the traditional Christian and social issues sector of the party.

Fred Thompson has such luminaries of the religious right as Dr. Gary Cass, Morton Blackwell and Paul Pressler in his corner; Romney has lined up an impressive array that includes the Rev. Bob Jones III, Jay Sekulow, Don Wilton and Paul Weyrich; even Rudy Giuliani has televangelist Pat Robertson.

If the past is guide, the Huckabee campaign will be crushed before the primary season is over. Ronald Reagan, trying to challenge the order of succession in 1968 and 1976, was brushed aside and forced to wait until it was his turn in 1980. Similarly, Bob Dole tried to leapfrog over George H.W. Bush in 1988, only to get slapped down. He didn't get his chance at the brass ring until 1996.

There is a set of factors suggesting that Huckabee will be more problematic to the GOP Old Guard than his insurgent predecessors, however.

Most importantly, endorsements notwithstanding, Christian evangelicals, who make up roughly 40 percent of the Republican electorate, are hungry for an alternative to Romney, Thompson, McCain, and Giuliani.

As long as there is a multiple-candidate field, the evangelical voting bloc has the power to force a continuation of the race beyond the first two or three contests. In this context, the South Carolina primary, which has traditionally provided a "firewall" for Republican establishment candidates, can no longer be relied upon to perform this function.

Already, poll data suggests that South Carolina's large white Christian-evangelical community is likely to defy party leaders and support Huckabee. He led in three out of four of the most recent state opinion surveys, according toRealClearPolitics , and tied for the top spot in the fourth. Averaging the four polls gives Huckabee a 6.5 point South Carolina lead.

While Huckabee's chances of winning the Republican nomination are slim, at best -- the Intrade political futures market gives him a 15 percent chance -- his success so far has the clear potential to derail Romney's bid.

Romney -- riding high just a month ago, as his "early state" strategy appeared certain to produce victories in Iowa and New Hampshire -- is struggling to maintain a respectable second place in Iowa. The Romney campaign is grabbing every piece of anti-Huckabee rhetoric available and sending it out in mass emails.

"JUST SIMPLY LUDICROUS," screams the most recent Romney missive in 36 point type, quoting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Huckabee's foreign policy.

The danger of an assault on Huckabee is two-fold: First, that it serves to reinforce Huckabee's claim to represent regular folks in opposition to Washington poobahs; and second, that Huckabee's supporters will be so angered when he is defeated that they will not support the eventual nominee.