Mike Huckabee, on a wing and a prayer

In a Salon interview, the long-shot GOP candidate reveals his convictions about gay marriage, wonders about Mitt Romney's faith, and fires back at Fred Thompson.

Published November 9, 2007 12:58PM (EST)

Unlike in junior high, it's often a good sign in presidential politics when people say nasty things about you. It means you are threatening. It means others fear you. It means you might just win something.

So, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the dark horse in the Republican race, has not been sweating the recent barrage of attacks against him. In recent weeks, Mitt Romney has accused Huckabee of supporting tuition assistance for the children of illegal immigrants. (Gasp!) Fred Thompson called him "one of the highest taxing governors" in the nation. (Zing!) A Wall Street Journal editorialist called Huckabee a waffling conservative. (Ka-pow!) Conservative doyenne Phyllis Schlafly blamed him for wrecking the Republican Party in Arkansas. (Wham-o!) One Thompson supporter really went for the jugular, evoking the specter of Bubba: "I certainly cannot support another individual from Hope, Arkansas," announced retired Brig. Gen. James Livingston before a Thompson event on Tuesday in Columbia, S.C.

Why all the sudden attention? With a scant staff and no television advertisements, Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, has moved into second place in the Iowa caucus polls, and he is inching up on big spender Romney in the still highly speculative national polls. He has earned consistent praise for his performance in debates, and regularly overperforms in straw poll contests. "He is coming on like gangbusters," says David Woodard, a South Carolina political scientist and Republican political consultant.

So when Huckabee arrived in Iowa Wednesday for a four-stop tour of the eastern cornfields, he was greeted by the full weight of the national press: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the McClatchy News Service and a half dozen others. In January, when Huckabee launched his campaign, only a couple of local reporters were around to ask questions. Now his daughter Sarah, who serves as a top aide on the road, has to call "last question" in press scrums so her dad can stay on schedule.

None of this means that Huckabee has yet earned a place in the chaotic top tier of the Republican field. Though he claims record money hauls in recent weeks, he has yet to get his fundraising machine up to speed. And his staff operation, now based largely in Iowa, is less well equipped to handle the rest of the primary calendar. But Huckabee remains a clear optimist. "At this point in 1979, Ronald Reagan's campaign was flat broke. Not that they were short on money -- they had no money," Huckabee told the journalistic mob during a morning tour of a metal factory in Cedar Falls.

The strategy of the Huckabee campaign now looks like this: Start airing television ads, which have already been shot, in Iowa within the next month, which can be complemented by an expanding ground staff to turn out supporters. If he can come in a surprise first or a strong second in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, he may be able to do well in New Hampshire, which would generate a torrent of fundraising and enough momentum to carry him through to the evangelical-rich South Carolina, where a Southern Baptist pastor with a minimal operation just might pull off an electoral coup.

"I think one of the things that might happen," Huckabee told reporters, "is that we could end up being able to be the nominee, not because of the work of the people who normally would make this happen, but by a whole new generation of voters that are disgusted with the old way. And frankly, nothing, I think, could be better for America than for that to happen."

But America still has a lot to learn about Huckabee. Many of his hard-line positions on social issues, for instance, are not widely known.

On Wednesday night, after the final event at a community college here, Huckabee sat down for an interview with Salon in a back classroom for about 20 minutes. Our conversation ranged from his determination to make abortion illegal for all Americans to his hesitation to explain his views of Romney's Mormon faith. He made clear his opposition to gay couples gaining rights even similar to those of straight couples, effectively reversing comments he made last year to the Concord Monitor supporting civil unions, which he maintains have been misinterpreted. And he fired back at Thompson, comparing the former Tennessee senator's federalist stand on abortion to slavery before the Civil War.

Additional reporting from South Carolina by Walter Shapiro. The following transcript has been edited slightly for length.

For the first time in the last few weeks, the other big candidates are coming after you -- Romney coming after you about immigration, Thompson coming after you about not being a real conservative.

With the Writers Guild on strike, I mean it's obvious that Thompson is in need of some better lines. The amazing thing is some of these attacks, and I have to be flattered by them. I mean, what else can you say? It's an indication that we really are threatening the position that people have, and they see us coming up around the bend.

What do you say in response? What do you say in response when Thompson says you are one of the highest-taxing governors in America?

Well, he is as wrong about that as he is in thinking the Soviet Union is still around. He is as wrong about that as he is in thinking that abortion and marriage are state issues, that morality differs between one state and another. It's obvious that he is grasping at something to attack me on. But goodness, that's just not where the record really is. If you look at all the states, take a look at where their revenues were, and our state is not only not far off of others, but I'll tell you what's more important. Each state have different ways in which they conduct their budget. Different states have different powers that a governor has in certain levels of spending. And what you really need to look at is how much of this is federal pass-through, Medicaid, other federal monies. How much of it is driven by the courts on prisons? Because if you have, as I did, 7,900 inmates when I went into office, ten and a half years later, nearly 14,000 -- guess what? That costs more money. So, I'm not surprised that there would be some issues that come up like that. But the record I have is one that is very, not only responsible, but very defensible.

Let me ask you about the marriage issue. You spoke with the Concord Monitor many months ago. And according to the transcript of that you said, you would tend to leave it to the states if they wanted to have some sort of civil unions law that gave gay couples the rights of marriage without calling it marriage. Is that accurate?

I have never supported civil unions, and I don't. I don't think it is something that is a good thing. I think in fact it's something that in fact just leads us to the ultimate idea of same-sex marriage, which I don't support. I went back and tried to read that transcript, and I can't argue with what they said, because I don't have anything. I don't have another transcript to say, well we recorded it differently. I'll just assume that was correct. I either misspoke or misunderstood. The only thing I can reconstruct it is that I may have implied that I would prefer to see -- because I have always supported -- a marriage amendment at the federal level, and a life amendment. I may have acquiesced that if that can't happen, I understand that states may pass on their own. But I don't support the idea that there would be civil unions, every state would have their own set of rules on that.

So just to clarify, you would oppose a state like New Hampshire choosing to pass a civil union bill that gave gay couples similar rights to couples that are heterosexual.

Yeah. Because once you give it in one state, then what keeps that couple from having it in New Hampshire and then moving to Arkansas and saying, "Hey, you have to accept what the other state did." That's why it is better cleared up by a marriage amendment that just says marriage is what it always has been. We are not redefining it. It's not that you are opposing something. You are actually affirming something. That's the way I really do feel. It's important to communicate it. My position is that it's the advocates for gay marriage that are opposing traditional marriage by wanting to change the definition and the rules. Those of us who are traditional-marriage people would say, We are not against same-sex marriage as much as it is we are for keeping the traditional understanding of marriage intact.

Let me ask about the life amendment. Right now something like 1.6 million abortions happen every year in the United States. If it was illegal federally because of a constitutional amendment, presumably some percentage of that 1.6 million would still be happening. How would you deal with essentially an underground abortion system that would rise up in the wake of a life amendment?

The key thing is: Your focus is not to go prosecute people. Your focus is to save the lives of the innocent. And I think you would do everything that you could to create alternatives for abortion. If you say we are not going to have legalized abortion, you have got to be willing to potentially accept the responsibility of covering the cost of the natural birth, the cost of adoption, the cost of the alternatives. And I think that would be a better price to pay than the price of the death of 1.6 million innocent people every year.

Would the morning-after pill and the abortion pill both count in your mind as abortions?

Anything that ends the life after it has been fertilized to me is problematic, because it is a life at that point. At that particular stage, some people say, "When does it become a life?" The very people who hammer me all the time about saying I am unscientific, I would say, well, the science is that it is a life. There is only one kind of life. It's a human life. It may not be as developed as it would be two or three or four months from then. But that's what it is.

So are we going to arrive at this perfect solution tomorrow? No. But it took us a long time to come to the conviction that slavery was fundamentally wrong, and it was not a political issue, but a moral issue.

And that's why when Senator Thompson made his comments the other day, and I know he was very unhappy that I questioned him. But here's the issue: One has to decide, is this a political or a moral issue? If it is a political issue, then you can argue that each state could have its own political solution to it. If you believe it's a moral issue, then you really have to believe that morality does not change at the state line. That idea that morality is different in Massachusetts than it is in Texas is the rationale of the Civil War.

Do we want the federal government imposing morality? You are comfortable with the federal government playing that role?

Well, let's remember that all law establishes morality. That's what law does. The law of speeding is saying that it's immoral to go at 85 miles an hour. The morality is that we have established a 65-mile-an-hour limit. So that's what all law does: It establishes that it is wrong for me to murder you. We've determined that that's not a good idea. I'm sure you are happy to hear that. So if I go over that law and murder you anyway, then society is going to punish me because I have violated a moral code, which we have all agreed to. So that's what law does. When people say you can't legislate morality, I am thinking, actually that is exactly what you do every time you pass a law. Now you don't legislate behavior. That's true. You can't legislate people's behavior. But all legislation legislates morality by its very nature. It defines the right and the wrong of the people.

You have declined in a couple of interviews to say whether or not you feel the Mormon religion is a legitimate type of Christianity, or a type of Christianity. I have spoken with a number of evangelicals, and one of them was talking about her concern [regarding Mitt Romney] of having a president who might not be praying to the God she believes in. The other concern I have heard is having a president who would lead people not to be saved in other Christian faiths by promoting another very evangelical religion. Do you share any of those concerns?

You know, I just don't think that's an appropriate issue for me to get into, the nuances of the Mormon faith. And it is not the sole criteria by which I think a person should be judged fit or unfit for the presidency, any more than I think people ought to necessarily make it the defining issue for me. I am very comfortable answering questions about my faith. I am probably the only candidate that has been subjected to this sort of detailed questioning about faith. I don't think Romney has even been. And my faith is a pretty mainstream view of the world and of the Bible. But I accept that as part of the whole process. I just think all of us should be prepared to answer questions regardless of what our views are, and let people sort that out. But that's why I don't feel comfortable in saying, "Let me tell you what this guy believes." You know what? I don't know what he believes. Even if I knew what his church believes, I don't know that I can say what he believes until he expresses it.

The Pat Robertson endorsement [of Rudy Giuliani] happened today. You have other religious leaders who seem to be out of step with their religious voters. If you look at the straw polls, you win. At the Values Voter debate, you were overwhelmingly winning there. Why have you had such a difficult time winning over the leadership of these various organizations to get endorsements?

Well, I think that there is somewhat of a growing maturation of the movement. And as this movement matures, there is going to be a lot of people out there in grass roots who appreciate that I am not maybe a part of the establishment -- and they kind of like that -- and that I approach this by being true and unapologetic on the issues that have brought many of them to the conservative movement. Frankly, there is some of the questions about that that I can't answer. I can't understand it myself, other than, if I have to choose between having the leader or all their followers, I'll take their followers any day.

Are you saying that you think your approach to politics, your approach to values issues, is threatening to some of the old-time leaders?

I don't know. I hear that from others, that that is what some of the problem is, that I don't just toe the line.

On what issues? Are we talking taxes now, or are we talking other issues?

I think I am as clear on immigration as anybody. But because I also say, "Look, let's not just be angry at these people. Let's recognize that if we were them, we'd want to come here too." That's not amnesty. I'm not for amnesty. I'm not for sanctuary cities. I'm no liberal when it comes to that. I think I am almost as hard-line as, well I was going to say [Tom] Tancredo, but ... I think I am pretty adamant that we ought to obey the law. But my frustration with the immigration issue is not directed so much at desperate people as it is at a dysfunctional government.

If you won the nomination, could you have as your running mate a Republican who was pro-choice? And if you didn't win the nomination, could you be the running mate of a pro-choice Republican?

I'd have to really think and pray about that. You know, right now it is not an issue I have to face. I have a long way to go and many miles before that is going to be an issue for me. I certainly prefer someone who supports the platform of the party. But I don't want to make any categorical statements at this point ... We'll see how things shake out.

There is sort of a love-fest over the last few weeks among the national media for you. A number of columnists have written very flattering columns.

You must not have read John Fund.

I'm thinking of the more liberal columnists, I guess. The New York Times and Newsweek are giving you very flattering compliments. But if you look back at your history in Arkansas, you had a pretty rocky relationship with the media there.

Not with all of them.

With a certain portion of them.

It was almost like you can name three or four and, yes. But you don't have a very big universe to start with. I had a very good relationship with, I think, the editorial department of the Democrat-Gazette and with most of the people in the outlying press. There was a tabloid there that, goodness, I have never done anything right. And there are some of the columnists and some of the news people at the paper. But I had a great relationship with the broadcast press there. I don't know of any real problems there. That's true of any politician. If you are governor for as long as I was, you make enemies. That's part of the deal. You just inevitably tick some people off.

But there is nothing that us national media don't yet know about you that we are going to find out about, that is suddenly going to turn our relationship sour?

Michael, I mean, there will be things where you will say, Ah, I didn't know that. But I don't think there are any big bombs to land, because I mean, heck, all this stuff is out there already, whether it's stuff on everything from clemencies to taxes, accusations made about my personal behaviors. I mean all that stuff has been out there. But you have got to understand, it's hardball politics in Arkansas. And the ultimate thing is this, that I remained un-indicted for all those years is in itself an incredible accomplishment in my state. I often use the line that the five most feared words were "Will the defendant please rise." ... Here is what I would love for anybody to do: not just look at the stories but check the sources and run it to ground. But some of the stories, a lot of those ethics complaints were filed by the very newspaper columnists who then wrote the stories about it. You have to say, OK, now how objective is it if you file a complaint and then write a story about it and make a big deal, and then the other press picks up on it, and keeps repeating it as if it is some scandal. And some of it has the most simple explanations that takes a lot more than the 10 seconds to make the accusations, maybe 10 minutes to explain it. But I have never felt like, "Oh boy, if they ever dig into that I am like so, I am toast." I am honestly not worried about that. I'd be more worried that people just look at the headlines and not do their digging.

A good example, I mean John Fund's article, where he quoted Phyllis Schlafly -- who doesn't even live in my state -- in saying that I had left the Republican Party in shambles [in Arkansas]. And that was disappointing to read that, because I love Phyllis, still do -- think she is a wonderful lady. But I'm thinking, OK, when I became the lieutenant governor, I was the first Republican elected to statewide office in 16 years and only the fourth in history. And I was reelected with the largest margin of a Republican in the history of my state. Then I was governor and reelected twice. There were 11 [Republican] members of the House when I came in. There were 30 when I left. There were four senators. There were eight when I left. There were virtually no members of quorum courts and county offices. There were several when I left. I appointed hundreds, actually probably thousands, over the course of ten and a half years, to boards, commissions; hired them in agencies to run agencies. I mean it was OK to be a Republican by the time I left. My PAC that I created gave more money to Republican candidates than the state party did. I raised more money for the state party than anybody had ever done before. If that is in shambles, then gee.

One more question. Was it a mistake not to have a finance director in place until September, and are you confident now that you will have enough money for the Iowa caucuses to compete on the same level as Thompson, Giuliani, McCain and Romney?

Yeah, I think, we'll have enough money to be competitive. Here's the thing. We had a finance director early on -- freshly married, bought a house in Nashville, Tenn., and just couldn't make it work to try the commuting thing. And then we just had a tough time trying to find someone who wanted to move to Little Rock, somebody who had the experience at the national level. And part of our thing has been, people have said, you know if you do well down the road, we might come. But my obituary has been written every month since January. Everybody has assumed that, well, he won't make it another month. So people who might have come if they had known where we would end up, didn't. I think to me, the miracle of our campaign is, here we are after all these months of having everybody write us off every month: There is no way we are going to keep going. There is no way we are going to keep going. And I'm still here. In fact, I am going up. That's the good thing.

By Michael Scherer

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

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2008 Elections Gay Marriage Mike Huckabee Mitt Romney Religion