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Divided we stand

"Divided we stand" Continued...

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

But Huckabee could not gain traction among the religious right leaders who could have generated the financial backing he needed to run a national campaign. In October, as well, he met with a group of conservative Christian leaders-most drawn from the ranks of the CNP gatherings-who say they were "vetting" the candidates. Most didn't like Huckabee's positions on immigration and tax reform. Others thought him insufficiently ardent in criticizing Islamic extremism and abortion. Members of the group believed that Huckabee was "their guy" from a religious perspective but said he was not quite ready for "prime time."

But no other candidates thrilled the leaders, either, so Huckabee was the one candidate they invited back for what one leader called a "do-over." He did much better the second time, yet the group remained too divided about his winning potential to agree to endorse him. When he won a stunning victory in Iowa, he didn't have the resources to take advantage of that upset in the primaries that immediately followed. McCain beat Romney in New Hampshire, and the Arizona senator soon became the unexpected front-runner.

On Jan. 22, just days after the South Carolina primary, Fred Thompson dropped out of the race. The next day, American Values president Gary Bauer wrote the 100,000 supporters on his email list: "Fred Thompson-sadly, in my view-dropped out of the Republican presidential primary race yesterday. He was the one candidate who understood Reagan conservatism and who appealed to all three segments of the Reagan coalition-social conservatives, economic conservatives and defense conservatives."

Thompson's departure should have helped Huckabee, but Huckabee himself had finished a disappointing second in South Carolina-to McCain. When Giuliani failed to win Florida on Jan. 29, a state in which he had spent much of his time and money, he withdrew-and McCain got most of Giuliani's supporters.

On Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, McCain won nine states to Romney's seven and Huckabee's five. McCain took 601 of the delegates to Romney's 201 and Huckabee's 152. When it was too late for Huckabee, Dobson endorsed him, but by then McCain had the endorsement of inevitability. On March 4, nearly a year after Dobson had said he would not vote for McCain, McCain won the Texas primary and enough delegates to clinch the GOP nomination.

Three days later the CNP met again, this time in New Orleans. McCain, trying to stroke conservatives, took the stage with a hand-held microphone. He received applause when he praised Huckabee, when he said, "We've let spending get out of control," when he said, "Radical Islamic extremism is evil. It's evil," and when he said, "As for the rights of the unborn: The noblest words written are the words 'inalienable rights.' That means the right to life."

When asked about his own faith in God, though, McCain launched into the story he has told often about a prison guard in North Vietnam who showed him compassion and once, in the prison yard, drew the sign of the cross in the dirt at McCain's feet, then quickly brushed it away. The story received polite applause. Later Family Research Council head Tony Perkins told WORLD, "He had a golden opportunity to talk about his faith. Instead, he talked about the faith of his guard. It was a great story, but not what we were looking for." Bill Owens, founder and president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, was more direct: "It was a disaster. It just proves he has no clue what we're about."

But Phil Burress, who by championing a marriage amendment in Ohio in 2004 became instrumental in winning Ohio-and reelection-for George W. Bush, was among the last to speak before the New Orleans meeting broke up. Burress had been a part of the "vetting process" in Washington where the leaders reviewed and dismissed the GOP candidates early on.

With the election now just over six months away, he told the New Orleans gathering, "McCain wasn't my first choice, and I'm not sure about him now, but we've got a zero chance of getting a conservative Supreme Court justice out of either Clinton or Obama. I don't know whether we've got a 25 percent chance, or a 50 percent chance, or a 100 percent chance with McCain-but it's better than zero, and I'm going to do everything in my power to help get him elected. He's our best shot."

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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