I attend a theologically conservative Reformed church. With the approach of the Georgia primary, people have begun to talk about politics on occasions when we get together. Since I’m the only "political scientist" ready at hand, they ask me what I think. Here’s what I tell them.
First, the real national race for the Republican nomination is between Romney and McCain. That doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t vote for someone else, just that, when the dust settles, it’s likely to be Mitt or Mac.
Second, since a lot of people kinda like Mike, I tell them that the only--very, very, very slim--chance for their man is if McCain and Romney split the non-Southern primaries on Super Tuesday, while Huckabee runs the table in the South.
I also tell them that they won’t simply be throwing away their vote if they vote for Huckabee, assuming that either of the likelier nominees is acceptable. A vote for Huckabee can be a "send-em-a-message" vote, the message being the issues he emphasizes and the constituencies to which he appeals need to be taken seriously by the GOP establishment, not to mention by the 2008 nominee. The Republican stool needs all three legs and, numerically, the socially conservative leg is quite significant. Where would the Republicans have been without it in the past twenty years? Republicans also have to recognize that that leg is "evolving" a bit, with younger evangelicals having a broader set of policy interests than their elders. There’s a reason why Huckabee does well, for a Republican, among younger voters.
I also spend a good bit of time explaining to my fellow church-goers that Romney is not beyond the pale, that the Constitution contains his Mormonism the same way it contains their evangelicalism. The government can promote religious freedom and cooperate with all denominations in the pursuit of limited ends, but it can’t be used exclusively to favor the aims of one denomination. This is a hard sell, not because the people with whom I sit in the pews are theonomists, dominionists, or theocrats, but because they have an ill-defined concern about Mormonism and because they think that the example of a Mormon President can’t help but help that religion in the spiritual marketplace.
Next, I tell them that, while November is a long way off, right now it seems like McCain is probably a stronger general election candidate than is Romney. The latter has spent tons of money and had a hard time beating an underfunded field. Stated another way, Romney clearly has some significant strengths as an administrator and manager, but he’s not a good campaigner. While being President shouldn’t be about engaging in a permanent campaign, you have to win the office before you can put your other skills to good use...and perhaps begin to shift public expectations back to where they should be. If electability is their principal concern--something I stress is hard to know this far out (not too long ago, Giuliani seemed to be the winner of the electability derby)--McCain seems to be a better bet than Romney.
Finally, I suggest that, regardless of the Republican nominee, Hillary Clinton is probably a little easier to beat than Obama. If on February 5th in Georgia you see people who ought to have voted for the man from Hope voting instead for the woman who’s visited Hope once or twice, you’ll know why.