Former Baptist preacher turned presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has been successful in infusing passion and life back into once apathetic evangelical voters. But the question remains whether he can broaden his appeal to moderate Republicans and, in general, to the American public to win the race to the White House.
A current problem facing the Huckabee campaign is how to attract other Republican constituencies beyond anti-abortion, anti-gay "marriage" social conservatives. Among his problems is the strong opposition from fiscal conservatives – important members of the Republican Party - who charge him with raising taxes as Arkansas governor.
"Evangelical Huckabee supporters don't like Rudy because he's pro-choice," wrote commentator Ryan Hawkins on Beliefnet.com. "Economic/Fiscal conservatives don't like Huckabee (nor McCain for that matter) because these guys aren't fiscal or economic conservatives at all…their records prove it."
He predicted, "Nominate Rudy and Evangelicals abandon the GOP in Nov. Nominate Huckabee (or McCain) and Econ/Fiscal conservatives abandon the GOP in Nov."
"Either way – we all lose."
In a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, Huckabee was shown to face an uphill battle in winning the general election. The national survey found that 52 percent of those polled said they would definitely not vote for Huckabee. His favorability rating was just 38 percent, compared to Sen. John McCain's 54 percent positive rating.
To broaden his appeal, Huckabee has hit the campaign stumps with a populist pitch in states not as receptive to his conservative social stance.
"If we're gong to win in November, we'd better elect somebody who can attract folks that aren't necessarily hard-core Republicans or hard-core Democrats, but that are hard-core Americans who love this country," Huckabee said in Grand Rapids, Mich., Saturday, according to The Associated Press.
So far, however, Huckabee is still almost exclusively seen as the evangelical Christian candidate. Most of his support in Iowa and New Hampshire had come from that voting group.
But Huckabee is reaching out to non-evangelicals with promises to improve the healthcare and education system to help the average struggling American, while emphasizing his humble roots.
"If people vote for me, they're doing it because they're truly committed to the message that we really need to reset the Republican Party," Huckabee said Monday on CNN. "We've lost our soul. It's time that we regain it, remind ourselves what made us a strong party – strong national defense, conservative fiscal policies, but it's also a commitment to those issues of the family and the working class people of this country who are the bread and butter every day of this nation's economy."
G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, believes Huckabee can draw moderate voters but isn't too optimistic.
"All his talk about God and faith could reinforce the view of moderate voters that there's too much co-mingling between religion and politics. But he's got this populist appeal that could attract them," Madonna said, according to AP. "We don't know yet whether his populism trumps the religious side of his campaign. But either way you cut it, I don't think Huckabee is a candidate who will do well in swing states."
Others, however, counter that Huckabee was twice elected governor of Arkansas, one of just a few Republicans to do so in 150 years in the Democratic-heavy state.
Whatever happens in the upcoming primaries, economic issues is surely gaining political prominence and playing a factor even among evangelicals, who want both a social and fiscal conservative candidate.
"The problem that I see with Huckabee is that he has not demonstrated from an economic perspective anything that I've seen as fiscal conservatism," said Reed Galen, a moderate Republican strategist in California who has worked for President George W. Bush and Sen. McCain, according to AP. "I don't know that the moderate Republican could vote for Hillary (Rodham) Clinton. I'm not necessarily sure they come out and vote for Mike Huckabee though."
The Michigan primary on Jan. 15 will test Huckabee's populist message in the state where there are many independent voters.