A distinction without a difference, since the sort of “private” endorsements he has in mind involve press conferences. They can’t endorse from the pulpit or else it jeopardizes their tax-exempt status so here’s the end-around, every bit as transparent as James Dobson’s pro forma disclaimers about speaking in his capacity as a “private citizen” when he sends out blast e-mails and chitchats with Sean Hannity about Giuliani’s unacceptability. If the objection to 501(c)(3) orgs politicking is that they’re deviating from the mission for which they’ve been judged exempt, how is it any less of a deviation for religious authorities to do it at a presser or on TV than at church? They’re still leveraging the authority that comes from their association with the exempt organization; the only difference is that they may be reaching more people that way.

Gary Glenn, a conservative Christian activist and a Huckabee supporter, sent the email Jan. 6. It encourages people to “distribute pro-Huckabee literature on the cars of church parking lots” and to “stand this Sunday on public sidewalks across the street from the parking lots of the biggest evangelical churches you can find, as people are departing church services, and wave Huckabee campaign signs.”

The email tells supporters to convince church pastors to personally endorse Huckabee (away from the pulpit), and then from the pulpit, to get the pastors to encourage their flocks to vote (without mentioning an individual candidate). “This is perfectly legal,” it says. “For those who will, schedule a news conference…at the public library or a local restaurant or hotel conference room (not a church), and invite all pro-Huckabee pastors to attend.”

The email asks supporters to leverage church membership lists as a way to spread the Huckabee message. “If a Huckabee supporter is unable to make the calls himself, ask him to share the membership directory of his church so that other Huckabee supporters who don’t go to that particular church can help call church members with a respectful polite reminder to vote on Jan. 15th (and hopefully for Huckabee).”

Other candidates play this game too, including the blogosphere’s favorite. But in their case the religious appeals are a garnish; in Huck’s case, with 80+% of his support in Iowa coming from evangelicals, they’re more of an entree, one which he’s happy to serve up himself by continuing to speak from the pulpit while he’s on the campaign trail. That’s the punchline to this strategy — as other pastors climb down from the altar to help him win, he climbs up.

Glenn (who isn’t affiliated with the campaign) defends the practice by saying this is where the votes are for Huck so it only makes sense to mobilize them, just as you’d canvass retirement homes if 80+% of his support came from senior citizens. But his support wouldn’t come from seniors because he can’t play identity politics with them, would it? That’s the whole point, along with the fact that by reminding people he’s a minister — a “Christian leader” — he can’t help but imply that he has a higher endorsement. See the exchange at the end here for an insight into it.

All that said, I think Geraghty makes a good case. Even if Huck flames out, he’s too smooth to disappear entirely. Four or eight years spent as the head of some social-con organization, during which time he tacks gradually towards the right on fiscal issues and it might be SECOND LOOK AT HUCK! in the next decade.

Assuming he doesn’t win tomorrow, that is.

Exit question for Mark Krikorian: Yes, McCain’s newfound enlightenment on immigration is utterly unconvincing. What about the guy who lifted your own plan wholesale? Does his good taste immunize him from the same charge?