WASHINGTON—Mike Huckabee isn't what pundits would call a mainstream Christian conservative Republican.
Sure, the candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is a devout Christian. In fact, he's a Baptist minister and was the president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention before he served as the governor of Arkansas for 10 years.
But ask the 51-year-old Huckabee how his faith affects his politics, and he skips over the standard hot-button issues of abortion, gays or whether people should say Merry Christmas or season's greetings—topics that dominate talk radio and cable TV and thus define Christian conservatives to much of the country.
Rather, he talks passionately about the morality of helping parents send their children to college, the need to observe the Golden Rule in handling Katrina refugees mistreated by an uncaring federal government and the immorality of corporate chief executive officers getting multimillion-dollar bonuses while taking pensions and jobs away from workers.
Hardly the stuff that gets a candidate airtime on right-wing talk shows or the backing of televangelists. In fact, it can sound like something a Democrat might say.
That might help explain why Huckabee hasn't caught fire with the party's social conservatives and is trailing better-known candidates in polls and fundraising. His invisibility in national news media is another factor.
But he says his version of moral conservatism makes sense in governing, and it could appeal to a broader audience at a time when many Republicans have lost support from independents and moderate suburbanites.
``It is an appealing message to a broader cross-section of the voting public, not just a litmus-test list,'' said former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, who recently endorsed Huckabee. ``His sense of right and wrong is more than just a few issues.''
During a recent Republican debate in New Hampshire, Huckabee criticized his fellow opponents of abortion for appearing to lose interest in children after birth and for not talking about problems such as homelessness later in life.
``He's an interesting religious conservative,'' said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
Huckabee hasn't managed to win noticeable support in the state that holds the first presidential primary, Scala said, but his strong performance in early debates—including his sometimes against-the-grain talk on faith—has grabbed attention and could help him move up.
Huckabee started in politics as Arkansas lieutenant governor in 1993. He moved up to the top job in 1996 when the governor resigned amid a corruption scandal. Huckabee cut income taxes, expanded health care for poor children, boosted elementary-school education and was re-elected twice.
Yet from the first time he waded into politics, he said during a lunch this week at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, he's been asked about his religion.
``When I was first sworn in, with my background, there were people scared to death that I was going to replace the capitol dome with a steeple,'' he said.
``Obviously, that didn't happen. People thought I would spend all my time trying to stop abortion and put Bible readings and prayer in schools, that that would be my focus as governor. Instead I spent time improving education, (the) largest-ever road program in our state, the health-care initiative for kids.''
He noted that he's solidly against abortion—he signed a state ban on late-term abortions—but stressed that the issue didn't come close to dominating his agenda.
``I was consistent in my views and values as it related to social issues,'' he said. ``But 91 percent of our state budget is spent on education, prisons and Medicaid. So it didn't make sense to spend 91 percent of my time on issues that didn't reflect my real job.''
In politics as well, Huckabee said, the issues raised by the news media and in debates aren't the ones voters mention at home or when they meet him. He noted, for example, that two debates in a row had asked about his belief in creationism—and disbelief in evolution—while no one has ever asked him about that in a town-hall meeting or campaign event. He said the question was more apt for someone who was running for the school board, which might debate whether to include creationism in a textbook, than running for president.
``It has nothing to do with solving the problems that people are talking about at the dinner table,'' he said. ``To make that the focal point of a race for president, frankly, I find silly.''
Huckabee insists on other examples to illustrate how his faith affects the way he governs. Nothing got him as agitated as the thought of people losing jobs or pensions.
``It does trouble me greatly, and my faith does generate this thought, that when CEOs are making 500 times the average wage of their workers, how can you justify that?''
When a CEO makes $100 million while his workers lose pensions or jobs, he said, ``that is immoral. That is a moral issue. I don't know how we can call it anything other than a moral issue. That's not free enterprise. That's theft.''
For more on Huckabee's campaign, go to www.explorehuckabee.com