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Iowa crowds give an amen to Huckabee

Times Staff Writer

The table was noisy with the clatter of forks as Doughy Joey’s pizza made the rounds. Carolyn Samuel sat quietly, hands clasped.

She didn’t want to eat yet, she explained. She was waiting for the next president of the United States to say grace.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a longtime Southern Baptist pastor, didn’t think to pray over the pepperoni when he pitched his candidacy for the Republican nomination to a fired-up crowd at Doughy Joey’s. But otherwise, he hit all the right notes for Samuel -- and for scores of other conservative Christians who packed his campaign events in Iowa this week and interrupted his speech at the pizza parlor with repeated calls of “Amen!”

After months of dismissing Huckabee as a nice guy with no chance to win, Iowa’s influential social conservatives are giving him a second look. The latest polls give him anywhere from 13% to 19% of the vote in Iowa, up from 2% to 3% a few months ago. Those numbers put him in second place behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

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His campaign suggests he can win the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses outright, then make a strong showing in New Hampshire, where he’s polling fourth.

“I plan to surprise a lot of people,” said Huckabee, 52.

To pull it off, he will need thousands of conservative evangelical voters to disregard the advice of their leaders.

Televangelist Pat Robertson this week threw his support behind former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, saying he wanted to back the man he thought could best protect the country from terrorism. Several intellectual architects of the religious right support Romney, among them James Bopp Jr., a top antiabortion activist, and Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Moral Majority. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who is popular among evangelicals, recently dropped his bid and backed Arizona Sen. John McCain.

In Iowa this week, Huckabee’s supporters did not try to hide their disappointment -- and bewilderment -- at the string of big-name endorsements going to other candidates. Their man is not only a preacher, but a lifelong crusader for the causes they cherish. He wants to make abortion a federal crime and to outlaw same-sex marriage. He would like public-school students to learn creationism alongside evolution.

To see Huckabee losing so many endorsements “boggles my mind,” said Matt Reisetter, who works for the campaign.

Huckabee’s advisors say his campaign is lagging in fundraising and key endorsements because the establishment is power-hungry and calculating.

“They are looking to see who will give them a seat at the table instead of standing up for what’s right,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the campaign’s Iowa chairman.

Huckabee also says the evangelical leadership is out of touch. But he didn’t turn away an endorsement Thursday from an old-guard activist, Donald E. Wildmon, founder of the American Family Assn. in Tupelo, Miss. Though not a household name, Wildmon has considerable clout; his group has a vast mailing list and a proven ability to mobilize Christian conservatives by the hundreds of thousands.

After a standing ovation from more than 100 supporters Thursday in Cedar Rapids, Huckabee said he sensed the evangelical base turning against traditional power brokers. “Our website just lit up with people who said they would take their contributions from [Robertson’s TV ministry] and send them to us,” he said, pumping his fist in the air.

“The people, they’ll have a different take than the leaders,” said Carolyn Samuel, 48, who works for the American Red Cross.

An engaging speaker with a deep-dimpled smile, Huckabee is a natural campaigner; he likes to banter and he chats easily with voters, whether discussing the intricacies of his immigration plan or divulging his secret recipe for chili. (Use venison, not beef; lots of onions, no beans and a sprinkle of cilantro.)

“He’s really impressed me,” said Eric Dickinson, 33, a police officer from Vinton. “I like his sincerity and his background. He understands better than most candidates what the average person is going through.”

Huckabee likes to tell crowds that he grew up in a working-class, patriotic family in Hope, Ark. (the same hometown as President Clinton, though he asks his audiences not to hold that against him). On his mother’s side, he says, he’s one generation removed from dirt floors and outhouses. On his father’s side, he was the first male to graduate from high school.

Many of the voters who packed Huckabee’s events this week admitted that he had not been their first choice.

They had dismissed Giuliani because he supports abortion rights. But some had hoped to support Romney, a recent convert to the antiabortion movement, on the grounds that he would have the best chance against the Democrats.

In the end, they said, they couldn’t trust him. They prayed for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to get into the race -- only to find him uninspiring.

So, in the last week or two, they’d begun to research Huckabee.

They knew him best for his positions on social issues. But on the campaign trail, Huckabee’s biggest applause comes when he vows to wean the U.S. from foreign oil and to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, replacing the federal tax code with a flat 23% sales tax.

When he does mention God, it’s often to frame an issue not typically associated with faith -- or with Republicans.

In one town hall meeting, Huckabee veered into a long tangent about the environment. He said he and his wife use only energy-efficient light bulbs, drive a vehicle that runs partly on ethanol, dry their jeans and shirts on a clothesline, and -- despite ridicule from their children -- run errands by bike.

“For me, it’s a spiritual issue, not a political issue,” Huckabee said. “God is the creator of the Earth, and he owns it. I’m a guest.”

Huckabee also called exercise a moral issue. Once obese, he lost 110 pounds and took up marathon running a few years ago. He now wants to get the nation in shape -- and slash healthcare costs in the process. “God made us to be active,” he said, describing the body as a temple.

Though he draws a heavily Christian conservative crowd, Huckabee tries to make the case that he’s a candidate with broad appeal. He talks up his 10-plus years as a Republican governor in a Democratic state, saying he knows how to work across the aisle. He always gets a roar of approval when he tells crowds that he beat candidates backed by “the Clinton machine” in four statewide elections.

Glenda Gehrke, 63, tried to put such political calculations aside when she met Huckabee as he toured a factory in Waterloo. To her mind, the most important thing a president can do is turn to the Lord for wisdom -- and pray a mantle of protection over America.

She figures no politician could do that better than the Rev. Huckabee.

And the fact that Robertson suggested otherwise?

Gehrke said she will no longer watch “The 700 Club,” Robertson’s on-air ministry. She has lost all respect for the evangelical elite.

“I have no clue where they’re coming from,” she said. “I’ve got to vote the way the Lord would want me to vote.”

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com


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