Looking for a Niche, Mike Huckabee, Woos Blacks in GOP Primaries

© The Washington Post Governor Huckabee attends church in South Carolina.
© The Washington Post Governor Huckabee attends church in South Carolina.

Mike Huckabee journeyed to this rural hamlet recently to preach. Huckabee is white, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, yet here he was standing at the pulpit of a predominantly black church delivering a sermon about the nation’s race problem. 

“Folks, I’m going to be honest with you — we don’t have a skin problem in this country; we have a sin problem in this country,” Huckabee said.

“All right! All right!” congregants responded. There were shouts of “Amen!” A woman in the second pew banged a tambourine.

“I hear all the time, ‘We need to have a conversation in this country about race,’ ” Huckabee continued. “If we have all the conversations in the world, we’re not going to change anything. It’s not a conversation we need; it is a conversion we need, to be reconciled with God.”

This was an unusual message at an unusual campaign stop for a Republican presidential candidate, but it is part of Huckabee’s strategy. In a sprawling field of 16 contenders for the GOP nomination, each candidate is trying to find a niche — and Huckabee, who polls in the second tier, believes he may find one with black voters.

Here in South Carolina, which holds one of the earliest presidential nominating contests, as well as in a string of other Southern states whose primaries quickly follow on the calendar, the primaries are open — meaning any registered voter, regardless of party affiliation, can vote in the Republican contest.

The strategy requires a careful balance for a candidate such as Huckabee, who has also been courting white evangelicals and has drawn attention at times for sharp attacks on President Obama, who is reviled by many conservatives but is beloved among African Americans as the country’s first black commander in chief. This week, for instance, Huckabee claimed that the Iran nuclear deal would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven,” promoting ridicule from Obama, who said Huckabee’s comments reflected a pattern of rhetoric from GOP candidates “that would be considered ridiculous, if it wasn’t so sad.”

[Obama calls Huckabee’s comments on Iran ‘sad’]

And Huckabee risks angering some Republicans if they see him as inviting Democrats to meddle in the GOP nomination battle. In 2014, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) wooed black voters into that state’s open primary to stave off a tea-party challenger — securing his reelection while sparking a bitter intraparty battle that left some conservatives feeling alienated.

But Huckabee believes he can rely on his Christian faith to make a special connection with some African American voters, drawing on biblical values shared by religious blacks and whites. He did so with some success in Arkansas, where exit polls from his 1998 gubernatorial race show that he won a 48 percent share of the black vote, which is unusually large for a Republican.

There were signs in Manning that Huckabee, at a minimum, will find a friendly audience. After the former governor led a prayer for Tricia Bouttry, a black congregant who is battling breast cancer, she said, “I didn’t know anything about him, but his speech was so uplifting and his prayer was so heartfelt I cried.

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Source: The Washington Post | Philip Rucker

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