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Who will evangelicals back if Huckabee goes?

DALLAS (Reuters) - For White House hopeful Mike Huckabee, the end could be nigh.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stands onstage during the MSNBC Republican presidential debate at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida January 24, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria 2008

On Tuesday, the Baptist preacher goes up against two better-financed, better-known and better-placed rivals in 21 states for the Republican U.S. presidential nomination, and pundits give him next to no chance.

If Huckabee’s surprising ride from nowhere to win the first contest in Iowa last month does end among the coast-to-coast slew of voting on Tuesday, the conservative evangelical supporters he inspired will remain a force to be reckoned with in the November 4 election.

“The evangelicals are the wild card. Whoever is going to capture the nomination, if it’s not Huckabee, needs to get his slice of the evangelical vote,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group with strong evangelical ties.

White evangelical Protestants are a key Republican base credited with securing two terms for President George W. Bush.

They account for a fifth of the U.S. population and at least a third of Republican voters, giving them electoral clout in a country where high levels of spiritual belief and church attendance mean religion often mixes with politics.

But Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, has failed to reach beyond them and his campaign has faded since he shot from the back of the pack to a surprise win in the first of the state-by-state battles in Iowa -- his only victory so far.

He hopes to do well in at least some southern states such as his native Arkansas on “Super Tuesday” next week.

If Huckabee is forced to end his cash-strapped bid, analysts wonder if evangelicals will warm to either of the two viable remaining contenders, Arizona Sen. John McCain or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney?

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Both have drawn some support, but Huckabee’s continued presence keeps that vote divided.

In Florida’s Republican primary that McCain won, exit polls showed Huckabee, who finished a distant fourth, took 34 percent of the white evangelical or “born-again” vote. Romney managed 32 percent while McCain got 25 percent.

PROS AND CONS FOR EVANGELICALS

Evangelicals see flaws in both McCain and Romney.

“They both have hurdles to overcome with evangelical Christians ... but McCain does have a 100 percent pro-life voting record in his congressional career, and that is meaningful to evangelicals,” said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in a reference to McCain’s opposition to abortion rights.

Huckabee’s mix of social conservatism and economic populism has also struck a chord. McCain’s stand on some of those issues could help him.

“McCain has moral values that some of us in the evangelical centre and left find appealing,” said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.

“He is resolute in his opposition to torture and has a long-time commitment to environmental concerns,” said Gushee, who last year helped draft an evangelical statement condemning the alleged use of torture by the U.S. military.

McCain was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam and says the practice is unacceptable as a weapon in America’s “war on terror.” He is also tough on national security.

But some conservative Christians have not forgotten that McCain dismissed their leadership as “agents of intolerance” during his short-lived 2000 run for the Republican nomination.

Romney’s problems with the evangelicals may run deeper.

He is a recent convert to the anti-abortion rights cause and his Mormon religion is viewed as a cult by many evangelicals.

But he also exudes a clean-cut, wholesome family image that resonates with born-again Christians.

Pragmatism could also inform evangelicals’ choice.

“We’re looking for someone who can beat the Democrat. Even if McCain is not the most conservative of the Republican candidates he is the one that can most deliver on that,” said Dustin Rowe, an evangelical and local Republican Party chairman in Oklahoma.

“Huckabee is appealing to Oklahoma conservatives. However the big issue is what will happen in November. I would rather support a moderate Republican who can win then than have the perfect conservative who has less of a chance,” he said.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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