Christian Volunteers Powered Hunter's First Bid

Rep. Duncan Hunter

hide captionRep. Duncan Hunter participates in the All-American Presidential Forums on PBS at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Sept. 27, 2007.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Read about Duncan Hunter's political career and his prospects as a presidential candidate.

Hunter bio box

Congressman Duncan Hunter is one of the longest of long shots seeking the GOP presidential nomination. The San Diego lawmaker barely registers in public opinion polls. But Hunter has won a long shot race before: his first campaign for Congress, 27 years ago.

In 1980, Hunter was a Vietnam veteran with a storefront law practice. His father, a lifelong Republican, encouraged him to run for Congress in a Democratic district. The issues would be defense and jobs, Hunter's father predicted, which amounted to the same thing in San Diego at the time.

"My mom designed our billboards," Hunter recalls. "We put those in the locations near the defense industry, near the shipyards and the aerospace plants in San Diego."

No one gave Hunter much of a chance, least of all Lionel Van Deerlin, the Democrat who had held the seat for 18 years. Van Deerlin was used to being reelected with comfortable margins. And he freely admits he was overconfident.

"I hope fatheaded isn't the right term," Van Deerlin says. "It was a case of not paying enough attention. We discovered shortly before the election what was happening. But by that time, it was too late."

A Growing Movement

What was happening in San Diego and across the country that year was a quiet mobilization of Christian conservatives. A San Diego pastor named Tim LaHaye, best known now as the author of the Left Behind series of books, had just started "Californians for Biblical Morality" to get conservative churchgoers more involved in politics.

"About the same time, Jerry Falwell came on the scene with the Moral Majority," says Jim Baize, pastor of San Diego's Midway Baptist Church. "His reasoning was that if Christians withdraw from the process, we're just abandoning our rights and our privilege in a republic form of government."

Baize was introduced to Hunter as a candidate who shared his values: anti-abortion, supportive of Christian schools and pro-military. So Baize and his Christian foot soldiers went to work.

"We had a big precinct map, just like any of the parties do, divided it up, said 'Your team take this group, your team take that group,' and let people know, 'Here's someone who reflects our values. If these are your values, you may want to vote for him,'" Baize recalls.

Baize and his followers distributed hundreds of thousands of pro-Hunter fliers, saving the candidate a bundle on direct mailing costs. When the ballots were counted on election night, Hunter had pulled off a stunning upset, winning by nearly 10,000 votes. Hunter's was one of 34 House seats that the Republicans picked up that year.

"The proverbial right place, right time," says Carl Luna, professor of political science at San Diego's Mesa College. "The Reagan Revolution and Reagan would have coattails to bring people into the Senate, into the House, and Hunter got caught up in that."

Longer Odds in 2008

Hunter's basic views haven't changed much during the past quarter century. And thanks to redistricting, he no longer has to worry about serious Democratic opposition. Throughout his congressional career, defense contractors and their employees have been his biggest contributors. And Hunter has returned the favor.

"I don't say this in an unfriendly way: He's for anything the Pentagon wants, and lots more besides," Van Deerlin says.

Pastor Baize likes the fact that Hunter hasn't changed, unlike so many politicians who, he says, seem to get more politically correct when they get to Washington. Baize's church still helps to register voters, but no longer wields the kind of political muscle it did in 1980. Baize is backing Hunter's White House bid, but admits the odds seem even longer this time than they did in that first campaign.

"He was ignored back then, but he had the opportunity to go around and shake hands and meet people," Baize says. "How do you do that on a national level?"

Whatever happens in the presidential race, Hunter has promised to give up his House seat. His son, a Marine reservist now serving in Afghanistan, hopes to replace him.

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