Former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee scored big in a Monday “values voter” presidential debate sponsored by and for social conservatives.

Huckabee was the overwhelming favorite in a straw poll of delegates during a three-hour Values Voter Presidential Debate in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., broadcast on satellite TV and the World Wide Web. At the end of the event, a full 63 percent of delegates cast votes for Huckabee, four times the number of the second-highest finisher, Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

“In terms of an elect-able candidate, I think we’ve discovered one tonight,” said Rick Scarborough of Vision America, one of 40 conservative leaders who picked delegates and asked questions during the debate.

“As a candidate for president, I am not just a person who comes and speaks the language of Zion as a second language,” Huckabee said. “For me, it’s a native tongue.”

“Many will come to you,” he said. “I come from you.”

Huckabee said the greatest thing that ever happened to him was not to be elected governor or to run for president, but to accept Jesus Christ as a 10-year-old at a Vacation Bible School in Hope, Ark.

“It doesn’t just influence my life,” Huckabee said. “It shapes it. In simple terms, in public policy it reminds me do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and it gets real simple after that.”

Huckabee said he knows there are some voters who like what he stands for but want to know if he can win. “The real question is, ‘Is it really about the money?'” he said. “If this country allows the presidency to become more about the pocketbook than about principle, we are no longer seeking a presidency; we are seeking a plutocracy.”

He predicted that if Republicans abandon principles that made America great, they will lose the next election.

Janet Fogler of Faith2Action, a debate sponsor, said her prayers were answered for a “David among Jesse’s sons” to emerge for “values voters”–the bloc of Republican voters credited with helping President Bush win re-election in 2004–to support in 2008.

Joining Huckabee and Paul in debate were Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, Chicago businessman John Cox, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, California Congressman Duncan Hunter and former Reagan administration diplomat and Renew America founder Alan Keyes.

Four GOP hopefuls touted as top-tier candidates in polls drew attention for non-attendance. Hard questions were directed at empty podiums with names of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. John McCain.

“Whether the candidates are here are not they will be questioned,” explained debate moderator Joseph Farah of World Net Daily. “When you run for president, you can run, but you cannot hide.”

Farah said all the Democratic candidates for president were invited to a similar values voter debate next week, but all declined.

The delayed entry into the race by Thompson, the former star of movies and television’s “Law & Order,” raised expectations for some that he might become the standard-bearer for the Christian Right. But he lost ground in the straw poll by declining the invitation.

Asked Thursday why he wasn’t participating, according to One News Now, Thompson replied: “Debates are important, but let’s don’t let the tail wag the dog here. Standing up there 10 in a row, you know, like a bunch of seals waiting for someone to throw you the next fish, is not necessarily the best way to impart your information to the American people.”

Fogler said McCain–who last weekend after being long identified as an Episcopalian told reporters he is really a Baptist–received so many calls asking him to take part in the Values Voter Presidential Debate that his campaign asked debate organizers to stop the calls because they were preventing workers from making outgoing calls.

Responding to a question to all the candidates about whether they would support a constitutional amendment respecting the right to life, Huckabee said: “It’s obvious all us of us are pro-life. It’s also why there are four empty podiums.”

“I got into politics because I am pro-life,” he said. “On this issue our culture rises or falls. It really says everything about us as a civilization whether we value life.”

Asked about the threat of radical Islam, Huckabee described the war on terror as “a theological war.”

“It’s not politically correct to say that,” he said. “It’s just the truth. We’re fighting people whose religious fanaticism will not be satisfied until every one of us is dead.”

In a debate where most of the candidates found solidarity on a majority of the issues, Ron Paul, who has been described as a constitutionalist and a libertarian, won points in the straw poll by breaking ranks.

Asked about a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, Paul said, “Why don’t you just tell them to look it up in the dictionary to find out what marriage is?”

Paul said the government has no business defining marriage, which he said is a church function that the government got involved in for reasons of public health. As Christians, he said, “We should define it.”

Asked about his religious convictions, Paul said he gets to God through Jesus Christ.

“Christ to me is a man of peace,” he said. “He is for peace, not for war. He doesn’t support pre-emptive war.”

Paul said the current war in Iraq drifted from “just-war” principles as defined by Christian tradition.

“Christ is for love and forgiveness and turning the other cheek, for peace,” he said. “To justify what we do in the name of Christianity is very dangerous. Christ came for spiritual reasons, not secular war. God, he is the Prince of Peace.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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