By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- An apparent effort by former presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee to diminish the chances of former rival Mitt Romney becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee is reviving questions about whether Romney's prospects are being damaged by opposition from evangelicals and religious conservatives.
Gary Bauer, an evangelical leader who is an informal adviser to John McCain's campaign, said in an interview today that evangelicals are divided, but discounted the idea there is an organized effort to stop McCain from picking Romney.
Bauer said he personally believes that Romney "would be a great running mate" and said he has conveyed that message personally to Romney. Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families political action committee, said he was not allowed to say whether he advised McCain to pick Romney.
Bauer said that he recently conducted an unscientific poll among activists about who should be picked for vice president and said that Romney won a plurality of votes. He said that "it was notable" that among those who backed Huckabee, "many of them said negative things about Governor Romney."
Some evangelicals have opposed Romney on the grounds that they believe his Mormon faith is a cult. Other conservative religious leaders have questioned whether Romney's switch to opposing abortion represents a genuine commitment to the issue.
Huckabee, who is now a commentator for Fox News Channel, on Thursday revived his criticism of Romney during the GOP primaries that the former Massachusetts governor has changed positions on abortion and other issues.
"I think there are better choices for Senator McCain that have the approval of value voters," said Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. "The issue is that in many ways, Mitt Romney has had very definite swings of position. Not just on one or two things, but on many of the issues."
The former Arkansas governor declined a request for comment today, but analysts said his statement appeared intended to influence McCain as he nears a decision on a running mate. While Romney is frequently mentioned as a possibility, there has been no indication that Huckabee is under serious consideration.
Responding to Huckabee, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said in a statement today, "The primaries are over. Now, the task of all Republicans is on uniting the party to help elect John McCain, not on sowing division."
John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said he has seen an uptick in email traffic among religious conservative activists who oppose Romney.
"There is some behind-the-scenes maneuvering criticizing Romney on the same grounds he was criticized during the primary, that he flip-flopped on social issues," Green said in an interview yesterday.
But Green said that McCain was likely to make his decision based on his personal relationship and "how he gets along" with the possible running mate, not on opposition from evangelicals.
While Romney and McCain thrashed each other during the primaries, one of McCain's possible running mates is his close friend, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who opposes abortion. Pawlenty, who was raised as a Catholic, said in a recent interview that he switched to attending his wife's church to "reconcile our faiths" and now considers himself an evangelical Christian.
McCain has long had a stormy relationship with some evangelical leaders, calling them "agents of intolerance" during his 2000 presidential bid. While McCain has worked hard during this year's campaign to mend ties with evangelicals and religious conservatives, he set off a new round of concern this week when he suggested that he would consider someone who favors abortions rights as his running mate, specifically citing his close friend, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.
"Tom Ridge is one of the great leaders and he happens to be pro-choice. And I don't think that that would necessarily would rule Tom Ridge out," McCain told The Weekly Standard.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.