By Charles Mahtesian
Sunday, November 4, 2007
“Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly,” A.J. Liebling once famously noted. “They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch.” But in the case of Mike Huckabee, the opposite might be true.
The farther this Baptist preacher-turned-presidential candidate gets from Little Rock, the more appealing he becomes. From the Manhattan studios of Jon Stewart‘s “The Daily Show” to the Values Voter Summit in Washington, from the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, to a jam session with a high school jazz band in Concord, N.H., Huckabee has blended his faith and social conservatism into an appealing package — one that’s true to his evangelical roots yet somehow unthreatening to more secular audiences.
He has even charmed the national media (no mean feat for an antiabortion Christian conservative and former president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention). More to the point, he has surged into second place among Republicans in Iowa, where his 19 percent support in the most recent American Research Group poll places him behind only the front-running Mitt Romney, who has 27 percent. In March, the former Arkansas governor’s support was so low it registered as an asterisk. Not anymore.
Huckabee is for real — a man poised to go further on the national stage than any other candidate produced by the Christian conservative movement. Sure, some pundits still write him off, and back home, detractors insist that he’s just angling for a plum Cabinet post. But you can spot an awfully convincing blueprint for how the candidate once tagged as “the hillbilly Ronald Reagan” could win the Republican nomination — or end up as the inevitable vice presidential pick on a GOP ticket led by Rudy Giuliani. That’s more than you can say for some of Huckabee’s rivals.
The story begins in Iowa, where the Huckabee boomlet took off in August after he came in a surprise second to the cash-laden Romney in the Ames straw poll. The state, which traditionally winnows the field rather than anointing a winner, has plenty of energetic and politically astute Christian conservatives, who helped the televangelist Pat Robertson stun the political world in 1988 with his 25 percent second-place finish in the caucuses. Huckabee doesn’t have to win Iowa, though his standing in the polls suggests that it’s not out of the question. All he has to do is place or show.
Then there’s chilly New Hampshire, a place where Christian right candidates go to die. The state’s far more secular-minded voters won’t quickly warm to a Southern Baptist who began his preaching career in high school. But if Huckabee survives Iowa, chances are that one of the current top-tier candidates won’t. If Romney is bloodied or bowed there, social conservatives will need another vehicle to block Giuliani, who supports abortion-rights. And Huckabee will again be campaigning in a state he doesn’t need to win outright. He simply needs a solid showing in New Hampshire, one that establishes his viability going forward, when the campaign heads South. Remember, another Arkansan, Bill Clinton, didn’t win New Hampshire either: He defied expectations and lived to fight another day.
Huckabee’s mere survival through Iowa and New Hampshire would suddenly become a huge political story. Coasting on media attention, Michigan‘s Jan. 15 GOP primary would become less important to Huckabee as the Republicans’ attention turns to South Carolina‘s Jan. 19 primary: the preacher’s chance to shine. While he has yet to win over politically pragmatic Christian conservative leaders who wonder about his electability and worry about his weak fundraising, it’s hard to imagine them turning their backs on one of their own at the very moment when Huckabee will be closer to the Oval Office than any other Republican Southern Baptist in history.
In South Carolina, the nerve center of the Christian right, Huckabee will have broad appeal, and all without the off-putting Bible-thumping baggage that could hurt him in the state’s coastal Low Country. This will be where Huckabee sticks the dagger into Fred Thompson (assuming the slow-moving former senator is still around) and establishes himself as the conservative’s conservative. Huckabee will move on to another good opportunity with Florida‘s contest 10 days later, then brace for the major primary payday on Feb. 5, when Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and several other heavily Southern Baptist states cast their votes. When the dust settles on Feb. 6, carrying the South would let Huckabee have a one-on-one duel, possibly with Giuliani, that enables him to showcase his greatest asset: his personality. Could that take him all the way? The abrasive Giuliani, or any other finalist, would rule that out at his peril.
Naturally, the Huckabee scenario depends on his ability to attract Republicans who have never cast their lot with an evangelical. But these voters haven’t met a candidate quite like Huckabee. From the beginning of his political career at age 36, when he left his successful ministry at Texarkana’s Beech Street First Baptist Church to embark on a long-shot 1992 Senate run, he has worked the margins of faith and politics to craft his own brand of “compassionate conservatism.”
Huckabee, 52, has spent so much time in the public eye — first as a minister, then as a pol — that almost no audience can unnerve him. He’s clearly a son of the South, but he works in themes with broad pop-culture appeal. He can cite Scripture in one venue, turn around, strap on his guitar and do a respectable cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” with his band. As he told a crowd in Clear Lake, Iowa, recently: “We want to show that conservatives, Republicans, Christian believers can have as much fun as anybody else in the whole world.” He may not always seem presidential, but he doesn’t seem scary either.
Huckabee’s style is more Bill Clinton than Pat Robertson, forged in the pulpit and honed in the statehouse. Like Clinton, Huckabee was born in Hope. And like Clinton, he was elected governor of Arkansas Boys State, the leadership-training camp for civic-minded youths.
In Arkansas, Huckabee worked to enact broad-based tax cuts, but he also signed measures that increased the sales tax on gasoline and cigarettes. He persuaded voters to approve a $1 billion road-construction package and helped establish a much-lauded program to expand health-care coverage to children. In 2005, he won credit for his state’s role in assisting more than 60,000 Hurricane Katrina refugees. Working with church leaders, Huckabee bypassed the feds and dispersed evacuees to the many Christian church camps that had closed at summer’s end.
Huckabee has never been shy about discussing his beliefs. “My faith is my life,” he says on his campaign Web site. “It defines me. My faith doesn’t influence my decisions, it drives them.” At the same time, he avoids the lacerating rhetoric preferred by culture warriors — a lesson learned from his maiden run for office in 1992, when his tough attacks on Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers backfired. He has been at his best as a healer; in 1989-90, as head of the Arkansas Baptist Convention, he kept peace between warring moderate and conservative factions, and in 1996, he won widespread praise for deftly handling his awkward ascension to the governorship after the stunning conviction of Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker on charges stemming from the Whitewater investigation.
The clearest testament to Huckabee’s dexterity — and the staying power of his faith-infused, soft-edged conservatism — is the very makeup of the 2008 GOP field. In the mid-1990s, Huckabee was a frequently overlooked member of the celebrated corps of Republican Revolution-era governors. The talent pool ran so deep at the time that the party seemed stocked with viable presidential aspirants for decades to come.
But while one of those governors, George W. Bush, found his way to the White House, the others slowly faded. By late 2006, just three governors were in the hunt to succeed Bush — Huckabee, New York‘s George Pataki and Wisconsin‘s Tommy Thompson. Pataki quickly learned that he had no constituency and never entered the race. Thompson did jump in, only to discover that his signature issue, welfare reform, had lost its political saliency.
That leaves Huckabee, the last 1990s-era Republican governor standing in the 2008 race. As his rise shows, religion never goes out of style in American politics. Huckabee’s rivals may yet learn that the hard way.
Charles Mahtesian is the editor
of The Almanac of American Politics.