Can Mike Huckabee out-charm the GOP big three?

In a race dominated by Giuliani, McCain and Romney, the folksy Arkansas Republican is a long shot. But he's the one Christian conservative running who might not scare independents.

Published March 5, 2007 1:15PM (EST)

When he woke up this morning, Mike Evans knew basically nothing about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But now he sits in a booth at Philly's Finest, a pizza joint squeezed between a tanning salon and a tax shop in an Iowa mini-mall, waiting for the long-shot 2008 Republican presidential candidate to arrive. He has brought along his five home-schooled children, all younger than 14, who are digging into pizza and soda pop. In his hand, he holds Huckabee's Wikipedia entry, printed out just hours earlier. "I Googled him," he says.

In the traveling vaudeville circuit known as the campaign trail, Iowans like Evans are a prize of near-incalculable value, early voters worthy of countless hours of campaign time and millions of dollars in advertising. In exchange for the privilege, Evans, who is the pastor of the nearby Crossroad Evangelical Free Church, takes his responsibility seriously. Though the caucuses are still a year away, he has already been learning about Massachusetts' Mitt Romney, the other former governor in the race, who has visited the suburbs of Des Moines four or five times. "I have respect for him as a person," Evans says of Romney, a practicing Mormon. "But I have problems with him theologically."

Huckabee, on the other hand, is cut from Evans' cloth. Before becoming governor in 1996, he served for 12 years as a small-town Baptist pastor. He is unassailably antiabortion, anti-gay marriage and sympathetic to creationism. He pushed for a law in Arkansas that allows for covenant marriage, in which spouses sign a contract agreeing not to divorce unless there is abuse, a felony conviction or adultery, an agreement Huckabee calls "a positive pre-nup." As governor he declared countless statewide "days of prayer" and has written several books that explain the importance of God in daily life.

But as Huckabee gets warmed up with his stump speech, Evans seems to notice something about the candidate beyond his policy positions, and he pulls out his day planner and begins to take notes. "Optimistic," he writes below Huckabee's name. "Positive." Far from the fire and brimstone of other conservative Christians, Huckabee speaks warmly of Democrats and even mentions the leadership of John F. Kennedy, who wanted to put a man on the moon. The former governor boasts of increasing spending on children's healthcare and education in Arkansas. He mentions the need for renewable fuels and music programs in schools. "I come from a state where 86 percent of the elected officials are Democrats," Huckabee says. "I didn't try to be a Republican governor."

After Huckabee is finished, Evans explains his impressions, which have nothing to do with the candidate's stand on cultural issues. "It's nice to see a little humility in a politician once in a while," he says. "Just to say that Democrats might not be completely out to lunch -- I've always believed that."

In an instant, Evans had captured the Huckabee quality that poses the clearest threat to partisan Democrats. He is the only Republican currently running for president with solid-gold Christian-right credentials as well as the potential to appeal to crossover independent voters, who abandoned the Republican Party in 2006. When you listen to his stump speech, you hear a Republican who calls himself an "authentic conservative," but believes in the power of government to help the poor and disenfranchised. You hear a leader who is eager to tell everyone that President Bush's blunders in New Orleans "made my blood boil." You hear a politician who says he wants to help people, a sort of Dr. Phil-meets-Ned Flanders for the political arena, someone who just might be able to talk, listen and care his way into the Oval Office.

For the other second-tier Republican candidates, the hard road Huckabee faces will lead to a near-certain dead end. But no one is counting out Huckabee just yet. It doesn't matter that he is barely a blip on the national polls, or that he has just a fraction of the money, endorsements and organization of the relative front-runners, Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain. What matters is that Huckabee appears to have that special something -- the charismatic ability to communicate with the common man, which hundreds of millions of dollars never bought Bob Dole, Al Gore or John Kerry. "Huckabee is as close to Bill Clinton as I have seen for a Republican since Ronald Reagan left public life," says Richard Land, who heads the public policy arm of the nonpartisan Southern Baptist Convention, which represents 42,000 churches. "When he speaks, he not only knows the words and music, he knows the harmony and the melody."

It is an act that can impress both ends of the political spectrum. In a rousing address Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Huckabee took the group's hard line on taxes and abortion, but he also struck a strong populist tone. "Folks, I stand here today knowing full well that I am probably not the first choice to be president on Wall Street. I am probably not the first choice among the people on K Street," he told the crowd. "I just want to be the first choice among the people who live on Main Street, out there in the heartland of America, who shop at Wal-Mart, who go to church, who hunt, who fish, who drive pickup trucks and listen to country music and follow NASCAR, the kind of people who are tired of politicians telling them what they want to hear rather than what the politician truly believes."

During a recent appearance on "The Daily Show," Huckabee wowed even the liberal gatekeeper Jon Stewart with his graceful call for throwing away partisanship. "I couldn't have put that better if it had come out of my own mouth," Stewart told Huckabee, a soft-faced man, with a pointed chin, dimpled cheeks and thinning hair. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the dean of liberal bloggers at DailyKos, describes Huckabee as the strongest potential Republican candidate, the sort of contender that makes him lose sleep. "The guy is a scary good politician," Moulitsas wrote, "and the more Republican voters around the country see him, the more support he'll get."

Not all Republicans will sign on, of course. For years, Huckabee has been dogged by conservatives for repeatedly raising taxes in Arkansas. "It's clear that he is not a limited government conservative," says Pat Toomey, the president of the Club for Growth, a free-market political action committee. Likewise, his tenure as governor has also not been without stumble. His closet of political baggage even includes supporting the parole of a convicted rapist who later murdered a woman in Missouri. But it is also easy to see that a successful Huckabee campaign could transform the polarized, red-blue state of political discourse in America. Consider, for example, his stock answer when he is asked about his religious beliefs.

"If I really know what it means to follow Jesus, it means no kid goes hungry tonight," he said, at one stop in Iowa. "It means no wife gets the daylights beat out of her by some alcoholic abusive husband. It means no kid lives in a neighborhood where he is scared to death of some child predator that is going to pick him up and carry him off. It means not one single elderly person has to make the choice between food or medicine." Unlike former Sen. Rick Santorum or Sen. Sam Brownback, Huckabee does not spend time pounding the pulpit over baby murder and sodomy. He's a self-styled "compassionate conservative," a poll-tested concept that worked once before. But while President Bush discarded the slogan like a prom queen's sash, Huckabee wants to convince America that he is the real deal.

Michael Dale Huckabee was born in Hope, Ark., nine years after Bill Clinton, back when it was a town of roughly 8,000 and home to the world's largest watermelon. His father was a firefighter and a mechanic. They rented their home, and sent Huckabee to school with old shoes and holes in his jeans, he says. "There was always something deep in me that knew I am going to have to work really hard to get up where the other kids are," Huckabee tells me, a few hours after leaving the pizza place. The candidate spins his biographical narrative like a professional public relations spider. It hits all the right points: Pulled up by his own bootstraps. Believed in God and family. Worked hard. Lived the American dream.

We are in the back seats of a minivan hurtling down a frozen freeway toward his next interview at a local television station. "I lost a student council election in the seventh grade. The kid that ran against me was a real popular football player," Huckabee continues, expertly painting himself as the underdog. "He didn't even really care. He didn't even want to be on the student council. His friends put him up to it at the last minute to be funny. And I was really serious about it. He wasn't. And I thought, Goll-y, what a deal he's got."

Huckabee was the first man in his family to graduate from high school. He married his wife, Janet, when they were both 18, and finished a four-year degree at Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkadelphia, Ark., in about two years, despite regularly working a 40-hour week at the local radio station. By the time he was 21, he had moved to Texas to oversee a Christian public affairs agency, supervising a staff of 12 with a mission to spread the word of God. "I went out and bought him several suits and dressed him up real sharp," says pastor James Robison, a prominent televangelist who hired Huckabee at the time to work on Billy Graham-style crusades and television programs. "He was hungry to associate with people who were difference-makers."

Now 51, Huckabee says he first wanted to run for public office at the age of 25, but he fell into ministry instead. He became the youngest president in the history of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. In 1993, after then-Gov. Bill Clinton moved to the Oval Office, Huckabee was elected lieutenant governor, becoming the fourth Republican elected statewide since Reconstruction. Three years later, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of two felonies for his role in the Whitewater scandal, and Huckabee moved into the governor's mansion. Upon taking the post, he delivered a statewide television address, for which he claimed to have no written speech or notes. "Here is what I pledge to you," he said. "I'll make my share of mistakes. Always have, always will. That is why I am grateful to God that he is a God who looks at us, with all he knows about us, and still loves us, still forgives us, still empowers us to go on." He won reelection twice.

God's forgiveness aside, Huckabee did make his share of mistakes. Early in his tenure, he picked losing fights with the Democratically controlled Legislature. He clashed repeatedly with the Arkansas media. And he sometimes let his mouth get away from him. He once addressed an industry group, lambasting environmentalists as "wackos" and "fruits and nuts." He joked that Arkansas was a "banana republic." He said unwisely that his famed weight loss -- more than 100 pounds -- resulted from being a hostage in a "concentration camp held by the Democrat Party of Arkansas." He let wealthy benefactors buy him furniture and clothing, as well as unreported gifts that led to multiple admonishments from the state Ethics Commission. Upon leaving office, he used the Governor's Emergency Fund to pay for destroying the hard drives of his staff's computers, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Then, when a reporter caught wind of the scandal, Huckabee compared him to Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair, two of journalism's most famous fabricators. "He tends to be about two quarts high on hyperbole," observed two Democrat-Gazette editorial page editors in a recent essay.

Max Brantley, the editor of the Arkansas Times, a Little Rock alternative weekly, dogged Huckabee for a decade with stories about the governor's less flattering decisions, like opening a wedding registry -- at Target, of all places -- so friends could buy him and his wife things for their new home. "Mike Huckabee has such a sense of entitlement," says Brantley. "But do I think he has redeeming qualities? Absolutely." Brantley praises the former governor for, among other things, creating the ARKids program, which provided health insurance to about 30,000 low-income children in its first year. Huckabee, on the other hand, blacklisted the Arkansas Times from any contact with the governor's office, and began referring to Brantley as "a tabloid editor ... who absolutely hates me."

By far, Huckabee's most glaring mistake goes by the name of Wayne DuMond, a paroled rapist who murdered a woman after being released. DuMond's story is Southern Gothic, the Dukes of Hazzard meets John Grisham. He was a Vietnam veteran with a violent past and six children. In 1984, he was accused of raping a high school student in Forrest City, Ark., a town named for a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The student happened to be a distant cousin of then-Gov. Bill Clinton, and the daughter of an influential local mortician. While DuMond was awaiting trial, two men broke into his home, hogtied and castrated him. The local sheriff, Coolidge Conlee, later displayed the testicles, floating in formaldehyde, for visitors to his office.

A mangled DuMond was eventually sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. But the distant Clinton affiliation soon turned his case into a cause. Right-wing radio hosts and columnists decried the severe sentence. They raised questions about the lack of DNA evidence, and railed against the small-town justice system, which never prosecuted DuMond's attackers. During the 1992 presidential campaign, while Clinton was traveling out of state, Tucker commuted DuMond's sentence to allow for the possibility of parole. When Huckabee became governor, he publicly announced that he intended to commute DuMond's sentence to time served. "My desire is that you be released from prison," he wrote DuMond in a letter. Before Huckabee signed any papers, the state parole board approved the prisoner's release. Two years later, DuMond murdered a woman in Missouri and later died in jail.

The case presents Huckabee with a clear problem, along the lines of Willie Horton, the furloughed rapist who helped sink the 1988 campaign of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. The attack ad almost writes itself: Huckabee, egged on by right-wingers, worked to free a rapist who murdered again. When I bring up the issue, the former Baptist minister becomes defensive and tries to place the blame elsewhere. "Jim Guy Tucker commuted this guy's sentence to make him parole eligible," Huckabee says, as we sit in the back of the minivan. "Clinton knew it, Tucker did it, and now they try to blame me for it." In 2002, several members of the parole board told the Arkansas Times that the governor had actively advocated for DuMond's release behind the scenes. Huckabee calls this a lie, but he acknowledges he made a public appeal for the parole. "And I certainly regret that, in light of what happened," he says.

But the DuMond debacle also provides a window into Huckabee's approach as he begins his run for president. He has refused to take the predictable path by talking tough on crime to deflect the DuMond criticism. Instead, he campaigns on a compassionate approach to wrongdoers, especially those whose crimes are the result of drug or alcohol addiction. At Philly's Finest, he condemned the "revenge-based corrections system," sounding every bit the sort of squishy liberal that the Bill O'Reillys of the world long ago scared into the shadows. "We lock up a lot of people we are mad at rather than the ones we are really afraid of," he said. "We incarcerate more people than anybody on earth." As governor, Huckabee pushed for drug treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent offenders. He pushed for faith-based prison programs, and was critical of governors who "gladly pull the switch" on death penalty cases, an apparent knock on President Bush, who was criticized as governor of Texas for being cavalier about capital punishment.

On other issues as well, Huckabee refuses to toe the traditional conservative line. Wherever he goes, Republican audiences ask him about illegal immigration, and he answers with a meandering metaphorical anecdote about why the nation's borders should be as rigorous as airline security. But there is little doubt that Huckabee stands closer to President Bush, Ted Kennedy and John McCain on the issue than he does to the send-them-back-to-Mexico base of his own party. He speaks of creating a new process for receiving immigrants "who do want to come here, do jobs that we need them to do, do them in an orderly legal way."

On Iraq, Huckabee has technically supported President Bush. "That is his decision to make, and also his decision to sell," Huckabee said of Bush's plan to surge troops into Baghdad. "Let's hope he is right." Then in a patent dodge that will not be sustainable in a national campaign, he points out that he does not get the same classified briefings as President Bush, making it difficult for him to weigh in on the details of the plan. "If he is wrong then I think it's not just a political tragedy, it's a human tragedy for the people who have paid with their lives to be there," Huckabee says, sounding less like a Republican candidate than a disillusioned man on the street.

At the same time, Huckabee has not worried in the past about staking out a perfect record as a fiscal conservative. He repeatedly raised taxes while he was governor of Arkansas, a move that he must have known would hurt him if he ever wanted to run for higher office. For years, right-wing activists in Washington have circulated talking points that laid out his ideological crimes. While he cut the state income tax, Huckabee allowed increases on taxes for gasoline (for popular highway repairs), cigarettes (as part of a health campaign) and sales receipts (for education and other state agencies).

Grover Norquist, the prominent Washington anti-tax crusader, says that such apostasy can in fact be forgiven by conservatives, especially now that he has endorsed the 2001 Bush tax cuts and signed a pledge vowing not to raise taxes again. "The answer is yes," Norquist said, when asked if Huckabee's sins were forgivable. "He is a serious candidate." Like other conservative leaders, however, Norquist stopped short of classifying Huckabee as anything but a potential dark horse at this point in the campaign. "This is not a pipe dream," Norquist said. "But somebody probably has to fall down the stairs between now and then for it to work."

As it stands, that is pretty much the Huckabee strategy. He plans to gradually build his public profile, while waiting for one or more of the big three Republican candidates -- Romney, McCain or Giuliani -- to implode. "There are no Romney people who are going to work for McCain," says one member of the Huckabee campaign, hinting at an early recruiting strategy. In the meantime, Huckabee hopes to place in the top four or five spots coming out of the Iowa straw poll in August. When someone else falters, he could find himself with the money, endorsements and organization that he now lacks. At that point, his supporters hope, his natural talents could take over. "Reagan, if heard, you just knew the momentum was coming because he inspired us through his ability to communicate effectively," says Robison, the televangelist who once employed Huckabee. "And I think that could be true of this man."

As he toured Iowa, candidate Huckabee tried to embrace his role as self-described "underdog." "It can be that money is trumped by message," he assured the crowds, which numbered in the dozens. "You folks are a pretty good filter." There is a childlike optimism to the whole endeavor, one that appears both staged and sincere, and a bit fanciful. "Everywhere I have ever been and everything I have ever done I have had to look at the reality and start out saying, I shouldn't be able to do that," he told me. In that way, he identifies with Bill Clinton, his predecessor in Arkansas, who overcame enormous odds to become the world's most powerful leader. "He is an affirmation of everything that we really believe in, in terms of what he got to accomplish," Huckabee says of Clinton. "You may not like who he is, you may not like what he did, but don't take that away from him, because when you do, you take it from every kid in America."

Since 1997, Huckabee has written a handful of books that bridge the unlikely gap between self-help tome and political biography. He fills them with quaint recommendations and folksy crusades that seem designed to play in small-town America, even if they will cause chuckles among big-city voters. "Read the Bible more; blogs less," he writes in his most recent book, "From Hope to Higher Ground," which can be read as the mission statement of his current campaign. "Report litter if your state has a litter hotline; if not, advocate for one." He tells people to pay down their debt, avoid pornography, rake their neighbor's yard and buy Girl Scout cookies. He says Americans should not watch television when they eat dinner and should "never ask for anything without saying please." He even tells people not to use profanity, a mandate he appears to live by. Arkansas state Rep. Bill Stovall, a Democrat who served as speaker of the state House, says he only remembers one time when Huckabee used a four-letter word. "He said, 'Stovall, I'm not trying to piss down your leg,' " the Democrat remembers. "And he may have even said pee and not piss."

The conventional wisdom says this is not the sort of act that plays anymore in America. Presidential contests are $500 million affairs about fear, terror and patriotism, not littering. They are run by cutthroat campaign advisors, who cuss, don't say please and destroy people before breakfast. The candidates themselves are fierce brawlers who win by dividing the electorate, not by uniting it. The evangelical Christians are supposed to keep their distance from the big-city crowd. The liberals are supposed to see the Bible-bumpers as a national threat. The middle ground is supposed to be a myth, especially in the primary season. And Republicans are never supposed to say nice things about Bill Clinton.

But Mike Huckabee is playing his idiosyncratic hand anyway, and no one can say for certain that he won't be able to pull it off. Several weeks ago, Fox News commissioned a poll to find out if Americans were "hoping there is someone new who you haven't heard about yet who may enter the 2008 presidential race." By a margin of 53 to 38 percent, the answer among Republicans was yes. Mike Huckabee, the would-be pastor president, is trying to answer their call.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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