Columbia, SC-- This morning--not on his public schedule--Mike Huckabee spoke to hundreds of South Carolina pastors at a swanky, no-press-allowed two-day conference held in the ballroom of Columbia’s Metropolitan Convention Center. The group that put the free-to-pastors confab on is a purposely shadowy outfit called the “Renewal Project,” which is funded by anonymous donors and organized a similar pre-caucus pastors’ convention at the Des Moines Marriott in December. There’s another well-timed one coming up next week in Orlando, before the Florida primary.
Huckabee’s the only candidate that appears at their conferences, although the group insists it invited the others. Mark Ambinder reported in December that “Huckabee’s rivals worry that the group amounts to a ‘campaign organization for pastors’ operating on Huckabee’s behalf.” Well, is it?
Having mysteriously not received the urgent memo that reporters are not to be let near the pastors' conferences, Janet Folger, one of the Florida event’s organizers and a huge Huck fan (she calls him “the David … among Jesse’s sons”), encouraged me to check it out, so I bumped my plane ticket down here a day earlier than planned. When I got to the convention center, though, I was barred from entering the ballroom, so I perused the printed speaking schedule, looking for any friends of Fred, Mac, or Mitt on the lineup.
One lonely Romney surrogate, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, will give some remarks this afternoon. Besides him, though, the schedule is a roll call of prominent Huckabee backers: There’s Dr. Laurence White, a pastor whose writings are posted on Huckabee’s campaign blog, doing most of the introductions and welcoming remarks; he founded the Texas Restoration Project, a drive to organize pastors for a gay marriage amendment. There’s Tim LaHaye, the author of the “Left Behind” books, and his wife Beverly, founder of Concerned Women of America, both big Huck boosters. There’s former Ohio congressman and pro-family speaker Bob McEwen; he helped host a Huck fundraiser in November. Don Wildmon, the influential family-values warrior at the head of the American Family Association who gave Huckabee his nod, isn't speaking, but he apparently takes the lead in putting the Renewal Project conferences together. Dr. Mat Staver, a member of Huckabee’s “Faith and Family Values Coalition” and the head of an organization that advises churches how to legally get more political, has shown up to give the conference’s final address.
There is a chicken and egg problem in understanding what this pastor convention is all about: Are these guys in South Carolina as part of a concerted plan by some evangelicals to stir up support for Huckabee, or does an evangelical meeting inevitably look like a Huckabee rally simply because so many evangelicals believe in him? But if you do believe in an evangelical conspiracy to promote Huck, you can find all of its caporegimes in Columbia today.
The Renewal Project’s organizers certainly act like they want to be treated with great suspicion. Roaming around the Metropolitan Convention Center after last night’s session was over, looking for the event’s principals, I felt like I’d accidentally wandered into a meeting of the Masons, where a hilariously intense aura of secrecy, whispers, and special handshakes is deliberately cultivated. I asked a pastor who delivered a devotional onstage where he was from. "Not here," he replied, and declined to elaborate. When I cornered Laurence White outside the ballroom and asked him if the conference was bigger this year, what with all the evangelical interest in the race, he began, “There is a lot of interest among pastors…” Then the tall, vaguely Mosaic preacher with a square black-and-white beard trailed off, rebooted for a second, and continued, “No, the group is no bigger this year. Actually, it’s harder for us during campaign years because of what we can and can’t say. Sorry, I can’t realy help you, take care!”, and trotted off with a bit of a gleeful grin on his face, like we were both in on a joke.
I was left to hang out with the girl from the Texas event planning company that orders the tables and chairs for all the conferences, who suddenly found that her friendly disposition was in mortal conflict with her orders not to breathe a word about anything to anybody. “It’s colder than I thought it would be down here!” she observed to me, smiling.
“Yeah, although it seems warm to me after Iowa,” I offered. “Were you [at the Renewal Project event] in Des Moines?”
“Um… I don’t know,” she replied.
In spite of all the secrecy stuff, and though I couldn’t get into the ballroom, I sincerely doubt anybody uttered the words “Vote for Huckabee” there. The idea is that if you get pastors to tell their flocks to vote – the message of the evening, a few pastors told me as they left last night, was simply, “We don’t care who you vote for, just vote!”--the flocks will overwhelmingly choose Huck. A memo Politico unearthed from a Huck supporter in Michigan did the math: “[M]embers of evangelical churches vote for Huckabee by a 6-to-1 margin over Mitt Romney, meaning that if we turned out every evangelical Christian on election day, Gov. Huckabee would get six times as many votes as Romney!”
We’ll see on Saturday if this math works here in South Carolina. It didn’t in Michigan. Last night, evangelicals voted 34% for Romney and 29% for Huckabee.