The creationists

Tancredo, Huckabee and Brownback aren't attracting many social conservatives in Florida

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click to enlarge NO MONKEYING AROUND: GOP candidates Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee have received some flack for their anti-evolution stances. - Joseph Di Nicola
Joseph Di Nicola
NO MONKEYING AROUND: GOP candidates Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee have received some flack for their anti-evolution stances.

With the Jan. 29 Florida primary approaching, CL is assessing the positions and Florida support networks of the presidential candidates, regardless of standing in the polls. This week, we look at three Republican candidates who tout far right-wing issues:

When Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee began their longshot candidacies for the president, it is unlikely they thought they would be forever tied together in history for simply, and wordlessly, raising their hands.

But their footnote in American history is indeed a joint entry. Tancredo, Brownback and Huckabee, after all, are the three Republicans who raised their hands at a Republican debate in May when moderator Chris Matthews asked, "I'm curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree, [does not] believe in evolution?"

The blogosphere lit up in outrage and disbelief. One Democratic strategist said the trio made the Republican Party appear to be "a front for the Flat Earth Society."

The (un)funny thing is that Tancredo, Brownback and Huckabee have a majority of Americans on their side. A USA Today/Gallup Poll taken shortly after the debate found two-thirds of the respondents believed "creationism, the idea that God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years, is definitely or probably true." That was more than the 53 percent who said evolution was definitely or probably true.

All three candidates offered varying degrees of clarification in the wake of the debate, essentially parsing a position that doesn't completely deny evolution but requires the hand of God in explaining human development.

They're all anti-gay marriage. They're all against abortion. Huckabee is a Baptist minister.

So why aren't any of these three competitive in Florida, the land of the Defense of Marriage Act and Terri Schiavo interventions?

It appears that times have changed.

Social conservatives aren't getting the kind of traction they used to enjoy in the GOP. From 1994-2006, they were buoyed by Republican leaders who played to the Christian Right and Karl Rove's strategy of building an election coalition built on such wedge issues as abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage and public funding for private schools. Jeb Bush was a true believer and empowered social conservatives during his two terms; Charlie Crist is not and has not.

Additionally, many Christian conservatives here and across the country have made a pragmatic choice to support the top-tier candidates Giuliani and Romney, despite what conservatives see as their imperfect stances on social issues. (Giuliani is downright moderate, with a pro-choice and semi-gay-friendly record. Mitt Romney is late to the party, changing his pro-choice and pro-gay rights views only in recent years.)

"A lot of the social activists want to be with a winner," says Jim Johnson, a former Republican state legislative candidate, consultant and political blogger. "Backing one of these three is more symbolic; why send money now when they will only have to send more money later to back the GOP nominee."

The candidate attracting the most buzz in the heart of Tampa Bay's social conservative enclave, eastern and southern Hillsborough County, is the unannounced Fred Thompson. Former Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and his family recently contributed several thousand dollars to Thompson's exploratory campaign committee. As Byrd told the Miami Herald, "I think Fred Thompson is the right man at the right time. He's the one we've been waiting for.''

That kind of assessment — combined with expense of campaigning in the costly Florida media markets — could mean little face time here for Tancredo, Brownback and Huckabee. Here's a look, then, at the three men and their politics:

For Tancredo, the world of presidential politics begins and ends at the border. "Illegal aliens threaten our economy and undermine our culture" is how he puts it on his campaign website. Tancredo is a cultural warrior; he advocates tightening the border and cracking down on illegal immigrants. His 2006 campaign-setting book, after all, was alarmingly titled, In Mortal Danger: The battle for America's border and security.

Tancredo has served five terms in the House of Representatives from Colorado, frequently introducing immigration reform measures that failed to pass.

"As a nation, we can no longer permit our cities and communities to thumb their noses at the laws of our land, and we can no longer allow illegal aliens to be above the law," he recently said about a New Jersey city's decision to offer sanctuary to illegals. "The consequences of this lawlessness are simply too high."

His record beyond the border issue is similarly conservative: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-stem cell research and pro-gun rights. He supported the pardon of Scooter Libby. He's a Fair Taxer who decries "judicial activism."

He's too far to the right for even the Bush Administration.

"Karl Rove would certainly not be in the White House that I inhabited," Tancredo said at that first GOP debate in California. "We have had our differences for quite some time, specifically on the issue of immigration and my criticism thereof. And as a matter of fact, this is as close as I've ever been to Air Force One," standing near a replica of the presidential aircraft.

Tancredo has raised just $300 in two separate contributions from the Tampa Bay area; in Sarasota, he's done marginally better, raising nearly $2,400. His Florida total stands at $27,000.

Brownback is another cultural warrior, a politician from Kansas whom Rolling Stone called "God's Senator."

"In his dream America, the one he believes both the Bible and the Constitution promise, the state will simply wither away," the magazine wrote in early 2006. "In its place will be a country so suffused with God and the free market that the social fabric of the last hundred years — schools, Social Security, welfare — will be privatized or simply done away with. There will be no abortions; sex will be confined to heterosexual marriage. Men will lead families, mothers will tend children, and big business and the church will take care of all."

Brownback is chairman of the Values Action Team, a leftover from the Tom DeLay days that links Capitol Hill to various social conservative groups. It was Brownback who introduced a bill called the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act after Janet Jackson's infamous nipple-reveal during the 2004 Super Bowl. And it was Brownback who introduced the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act that sought to require physicians to tell abortion patients that their fetuses can feel pain after the 20th week.

Of the three, Brownback has raised the most money in Florida (more than $58,000) and on the state's Gulf coast (more than $5,000). His local contributors include some well-known names, including Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster and St. Petersburg lawyer Daryl Rouson.

Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist minister who lost 110 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes, appears to be outpacing his fellow Darwin-deniers. He finished second in the (largely meaningless) Iowa Caucus, in which votes are, in essence, purchased. Afterward, Huckabee said he would get a bounce from the results and declared himself a "top-tier candidate."

On the surface, Huckabee seems an unlikely candidate for designation as right-wing knuckle-dragger. He turned his personal weight loss into several health initiatives. He embraced people fleeing Hurricane Katrina, taking in more refugees than any other state. As governor, he mandated 40 minutes of music or visual arts education in elementary schools. He even plays a fairly decent electric bass.

He also supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman and another banning abortion. He echoes Bush's stance on stem cells, opposing research unless it is done on existing stem cell lines. He also supported the Iraq war and the surge strategy, saying, "Iraq is a battle in our generational, ideological war on terror."

Huckabee has opened campaign offices and hired staff in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire but has not done so in Florida. He's raised only $400 in Tampa Bay, and has yet to pull in a dime from Sarasota.

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