When I asked former pastor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee his response to Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, he paused for a moment. "Surprised" was his understated reply. But his frustration was quickly evident. "Our Web site went nuts with people saying they will never give money to Robertson again."
"There is a disconnect," he went on, "between past generational leaders in Christian conservatism and their own followers." Note the word "past."
Robertson's endorsement of a pro-choice presidential candidate is a transparent attempt to remain on the Republican train, even as it chugs away from the priorities of the religious right. It also symbolizes a fragmented political movement, which has recently seen Paul Weyrich's endorsement of Mitt Romney and Sen. Sam Brownback's support for John McCain.
Which must leave Mike Huckabee wondering: Where do I fit in?
Huckabee is a fine debater and a compelling speaker who punches far above his fundraising weight. He has strong conservative credentials. He is solidly pro-life -- in our conversation he was highly critical of Fred Thompson's view that abortion policy should be left to the states. Huckabee supports the troop surge in Iraq. He boasts of being America's first governor to possess a concealed-weapons permit.
But he adds an element that distinguishes him from the rest of a Republican field competing for the title of Mr. Conventionality. "I'm a conservative," Huckabee told me. "But if that means I have to close my eyes to poverty and hunger, I'm not going to do that." This, he said, would be to "refuse a larger allegiance, to my own soul, and also standing before God."
"Overall," he says, "the macro economy is doing very well. . . . But in the micro economy -- how specific groups are doing -- there is a growing disparity between the top and the bottom, and not just the bottom." He worries that even people with a college education are falling behind because of rising insurance costs and fuel prices. "People will only endure this for so many years before there is a revolt. But leaders in the Republican Party seem oblivious to it."
This kind of talk has earned the enmity of fiscal conservatives such as the Club for Growth, which Huckabee has dismissed as the "Club for Greed." "They view everything as accounting," he told me. "For a kid with asthma, who is sitting on the steps of a hospital -- let them [the Club for Growth] have an economic policy that doesn't care about that kid."
As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee occasionally raised taxes but mainly to do what governors are supposed to do: increase teacher pay and improve roads and parks. He is proud of extending health insurance to 70,000 Arkansas children and winning 48 percent of the African American vote -- achievements that would be impressive to most voters but that have been received with yawns from most conservative and Republican leaders.
Those leaders, including turnout captains, have been largely snapped up in Iowa, where Huckabee needs to show his strength. But those caucuses are inherently unpredictable: Only 25,000 to 30,000 Republican votes can carry the day. Huckabee hopes to bypass the Iowa establishment "one precinct at a time," perform respectably in New Hampshire and use South Carolina as a slingshot into the nomination. A win in Iowa would depend on the collapse of Romney, which does not seem likely. Huckabee responds: "Remember what happened to Howard Dean."
In the 2008 election, the war on terrorism will loom large. But on this issue the distinctions among the Republican candidates -- other than the conspiratorial mutterings of Ron Paul and his followers -- are relatively small. The contrast comes on domestic policy, and here Huckabee has the strongest general election message of any Republican. Perhaps it is time for religious conservatives to suspend cynical calculation and bank-shot endorsement ploys and reexamine another man from Hope.
During our conversation, Huckabee's most compelling response concerned his background as a pastor. "There isn't a social pathology that I wouldn't be able to put a face to. I've talked with a pregnant 14-year-old who hasn't been able to tell her parents, with a 17-year-old high school student who believes he is gay and doesn't know how to break the news, with parents who have a son on life support after a motorcycle accident. . . . It makes me a different kind of public official, not as rigid, not blind to problems."
And that is not a bad thing -- in a Republican, in a candidate or in a president.
Michael Gerson is the author of "Heroic Conservatism." His e-mail address email@example.com.