Who Will Attract Social Conservatives Now That Huck Is Off the Market?

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In the weeks before Mike Huckabee punk’d the political press corps with a much-hyped, long drawn-out non-announcement about the presidential campaign he will not be running, he lent his voice to the unofficial website Pray For Huckabee. It consisted of a page that told supporters he was praying about whether or not to pursue the GOP nomination and asked them to pray for him during this time of discernment. Oh, and to please enter their name and contact info.

It would have been a canny move for a future presidential candidate. It was even cannier for a guy who decided he prefers the life of a high-profile figure who can build a house on the coast with the money from his Fox News contract, and pick and choose his speaking appearances, all without the hassles of fundraising or endless debates or watching his weight on the campaign bus. Huckabee’s PAC and its e-mail list will come in handy the next time he has a book or a television special or a speech to promote. He’s crafty like that, that Huckabee.

But now that Huckabee has broken the hearts of social conservatives who very nearly helped him knock off John McCain in 2008 and were prepared to win him the nomination in 2012, who among the remaining potential candidates has a chance of picking up the votes of social conservatives, who made up 60% of GOP caucus-goers in Iowa in 2008?

A Barna poll from earlier this year showed Huckabee with near-universal support from evangelical Christians, earning a 88% favorable rating from that demographic. Sarah Palin was a close second, with a 79% approval rating, and Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney lagged far behind (57% and 56%, respectively).

As she did in the fall of 2008, Palin continues to excite conservative evangelicals, but all signs point away from a presidential run for her as well. Just as the appearance of Ted Nugent on Huckabee’s show last night should have been a clear give-away that the former Arkansas governor wasn’t about to hit the campaign trail, the announcement that Bristol Palin will be starring in an LA-based reality show with her male roommates is a fairly safe sign that the Palin clan isn’t thinking of a White House run.

That leaves a mixed crew of possible candidates. There’s Michele Bachmann, who attracts support from a certain segment of the evangelical community but who is unlikely to get many endorsements from pragmatic evangelical leaders. And Mitt Romney, who did garner those Christian leader endorsements in 2008 but couldn’t turn that support into votes from people in the pews.

After Newt Gingrich tweeted his way into the GOP campaign last week, there was some speculation about whether his new-found focus on religious freedom would make him a favorite of social conservatives. My short answer to that question is: Hahahahahahahaha. The long answer I already outlined a few months ago. Gingrich has put together an impressive group of social conservative activists in Iowa, but his biggest problem may be that he only has a shot of winning male votes. As the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land told the LA Times this week: “He’s got a big problem, especially with evangelical women. They don’t trust him.” They forgive him, of course. They just think he’s a creep.

Rick Santorum has been an early favorite of social conservatives in South Carolina and elsewhere, but he has the luxury of being a fully red-meat conservative because he’s not going to win. Plus, the news that Santorum tipped off his adulterer friend John Ensign when news of the recently-resigned senator’s affair was about to go public is unlikely to play well with the moral values crowd.

Mitch Daniels avoided really annoying social conservatives when he signed the Indiana legislation defunding Planned Parenthood clinics. But no one believes that the bill won him new support, especially from voters offended by the idea that moral issues should ever be put aside through some sort of political truce.

And that leaves Tim Pawlenty, who may end up benefiting the most from Huckabee’s decision not to enter the fray. That’s because unlike many of the other potential candidates, Pawlenty doesn’t need to lock up the social conservative vote in order to have a chance at winning the GOP nomination. Bachmann really doesn’t have any other path to winning, and someone like Romney needs to prove that he could excite social conservatives in a general election if he won the nomination. But Pawlenty just needs to pick up a portion of social conservatives and add them to his already broad-based coalition of fiscal conservatives, prairie libertarians and blue-collar voters.

Pawlenty’s main challenge with evangelicals and other social conservatives is that they don’t know who he is. He didn’t break the top 5 favorite evangelical candidates in a March, 2011, Barna poll, in large part because they haven’t heard of him. He’ll need to introduce himself to this community, and to define himself before others do it for him. His wife is an active member of the Minnesota church pastored by Leith Anderson, the current head of the National Association of Evangelicals. That can’t hurt Pawlenty, but he may find the social conservative crowd wants to hear about his own faith, especially since he tends to shy away from red-hot rhetoric on social issues.