ROCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican Mike Huckabee is trying to soften the image of the religious right as he reaches out to liberal Christians and blue-collar workers for support in his presidential campaign.
It’s a delicate balancing act for the ordained Baptist minister who staunchly opposes abortion and gay marriage.
But the folksy southerner told Reuters he believed some evangelicals had widened their political concerns beyond the hot-button cultural issues that helped put George W. Bush in the White House and had mellowed enough to embrace causes like poverty and the environment.
Huckabee, who won the first presidential nominating contest in Iowa with the support of evangelicals and placed third in New Hampshire on Tuesday, wants to help bridge that divide.
“Unquestionably there is a maturing that is going on within the evangelical movement. It doesn’t mean that evangelicals are any less concerned about traditional families and the sanctity of life,” the former Arkansas governor said.
“It just means that they also realize that we have real responsibility in areas like disease and hunger and poverty and that these are issues that people of faith have to address,” he said in an interview aboard his campaign bus.
The same issues resonated with socially conservative Catholics, he said.
For three decades evangelicals have been at the forefront of the religious right, a movement that seeks to redraw U.S. public policy along biblical lines and get motivated voters to the polls for like-minded Republican politicians.
That movement was epitomized in the 1990s by well-organized machines like the Christian Coalition of America, which once spurred people to vote but is now a shell of its former self after the departure of executive director Ralph Reed in 1997.
The new religious right is epitomized by people like influential Florida pastor Joel Hunter, who was anointed to lead the Christian Coalition but never assumed the position when it balked at his attempts to embrace issues like poverty and global warming.
Hunter -- who is also strongly opposed to abortion rights -- has come out in support of Huckabee.
“Joel Hunter ... is one of my key backers. He and his wife are strong with me,” Huckabee said.
Analysts say Huckabee’s agenda breaks with the traditional religious right and could produce strains in the Republican Party.
“Huckabee and Hunter represent political developments within the evangelical community that are apart from the organized religious right and may become a challenge to those organizations,” said John Green, a professor of politics at the University of Akron in Ohio and a leading expert on the subject.
“Your old religious right found a certain comfort level within the party by accepting the economic interests of the business community -- and the business community accepted the legitimacy of the social issue agenda. Folks like Hunter and Huckabee may well upset this accommodation,” he said.
Huckabee has stressed his support for the “little guy” and polling in Iowa showed him with solid support among blue-collar Republicans.
His call to replace income tax with a consumption tax is widely seen as regressive and is viewed with skepticism by most economists. Huckabee himself says it would be politically difficult to pull off.
“I would always work for lower taxes particularly on small businesses and families,” he said.
Huckabee’s mixing of economic populism with a conservative social agenda has struck a chord with the foot soldiers of the old religious right.
“Home-schoolers, televangelists, and pro-life advocates can fit very comfortably within this populism because it stresses conservative moral values and it also recognizes their class and community interests,” Green said.
Editing by Eric Beech