Are we perhaps witnessing the political ascendance of Mike Huckabee? Is it possible that restive religious conservatives, widely dissatisfied with their choices in the GOP presidential field, are poised to flock en masse to an ordained Baptist preacher who plays the electric guitar? To an ex-governor from Bill Clinton’s state whose chief claim to fame – until recently – was that he lost 100 pounds? To a guy who, with that kind of name, sounds like he should be cracking cornpone jokes on The Andy Griffith Show?
The answer is yes. Huckabee, notwithstanding his ostensible second-tier status as an ’08 candidate, finished in a virtual tie for first place this weekend in a straw poll of religious conservatives at the Values Voter Summit in Washington (if we include the online voters who chose not to attend), and Huckabee slaughtered the entire GOP field (polling 50 percent, with Mitt Romney a distant second at 10 percent) if we count only the votes that were cast in person, by those who were in the room.
It actually makes perfect sense that grassroots Christian conservatives might be warming to a candidate who has long been right under their noses. Huckabee – in part because he is actually one of them, having been a past leader of Arkansas’ Southern Baptist Convention; in part because he is a gifted communicator; in part because he questions all this stuff about evolution – might be well poised to fill the vacuum that persists on the Republican side.
The vacuum was obvious at the weekend Washington confab. For instance:
Romney (who took 27.62 percent of the total straw poll vote, compared to Huckabee’s 27.15 percent), is still widely perceived by these folks as the quintessential panderer - somebody who’s merely talking a good anti-abortion game, after having previously told Massachusetts voters that he supported abortion “and you will not see me wavering on that.”
Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani is still (rightly) perceived by the religious right as being a New York liberal on abortion. In his Saturday speech, he tried to sell his unpalatable beliefs as a character asset, as proof that he is a man of conviction: “Isn't it better to tell you what I really believe than to change my positions to fit the prevailing winds? I believe trust is more important than 100 percent agreement." The problem with Rudy’s argument is that these people really aren’t interested in disagreement, particularly on an issue (abortion) that they deem to be a deal-breaker. Rudy wound up with 1.85 percent of the total straw poll vote.
John McCain? He got nowhere this weekend. And how about Fred Thompson, who was supposed to swoop into the race and scoop up the Christian conservative vote? Forget about it. He did tell the Summit crowd that if he makes it to the Oval Office, he will immediately start to pray (perhaps as compensation for the fact that he is not a regular churchgoer, a lifestyle choice that displeases some religious right leaders). But Thompson still isn’t wild about the idea of codifying a gay marriage ban in the U.S. Constitution, he still refuses to apologize for the fact that he did lobbying work for an abortion-rights group, and, in his Summit speech, he probably lulled hundreds of eyelids to half mast with some of his less than scintillating bromides (“We must have good laws. We must do our best to stop bad laws”).
By contrast, Huckabee appeared to electrify the crowd with an eloquent appeal to purity: “I come today not as one who comes to you, but as one who comes from you.” He said that Christian conservatives should focus on candidates who “sing from their hearts,” as opposed to those (Romney, apparently) who “just lip-sync the lyrics from our songs….I don't want expediency or electability to replace our vales. We live or die by those values…Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important…Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics. Not now. Not ever.” One conservative blogger at the National Review wrote this weekend that Huckabee “blew the doors off the place.”
The crowd also loved his take-no-prisoners stance on abortion. According to Huckabee, not only is abortion a violation of "God's values," it has also forced us to give cheap domestic jobs to immigrants - jobs that could have been filled by the aborted. Yep, that's what the man said on Saturday: "Sometimes we talk about why we're importing so many people in our workforce. It might be (because) for the last 35 years, we have aborted more than a million people who would have been in our workforce, had we not had the holocaust of liberalized abortion under a flawed Supreme Court ruling in 1973." (If Huckabee was ever to win the nomination, I wonder how independent swing voters - who generally support that abortion ruling, as well as immigration - would react to Huckabee's argument?)
Anyway, the Summit vote marks the second time that the ill-financed Huckabee has come from nowhere to duel the well-heeled Romney to a virtual draw. It happened back in August, at the Iowa Republican straw poll. And it also appears that Huckabee is inching upward in the surveys of likely Iowa caucus-goers. The religious right leaders are still wary of him (because he hasn’t raised much money), but the grassroots seems to be increasingly receptive. If this kind of thing keeps happening, Huckabee will surely win the honor that is bestowed upon all ascendant candidates:
He will become a target.
If he starts to get real traction with the religious right, some of his rivals will start to utter insinuations about Huckabee’s dearth of foreign policy experience (an accurate charge), and about how we need national security acumen in this post-9/11 era. Also, expect them to tar Huckabee as a tax-hiker (as a governor faced with budget woes and lousy roads in need of repair money, he did sign hefty sales-tax increases on cigarettes and gasoline).
Indeed, fiscal conservatives are already on his case about his economic record. The Club for Growth, an activist group, ran ads last summer assailing Huckabee as a flagrant tax-and-spender, and, late last week, the veteran conservative activist Richard Viguerie (a legend in the movement) slammed Huckabee for similar reasons, calling him “just another wishy-washy Republican -- inconsistent in policy because he’s inconsistent in principle.”
(Note the potential here for a conservative split over Huckabee, between religious right-wingers who like his social positions and Christian values; and economic right-wingers who dislike his tax-and-spend decisions.)
But if Huckabee does well in Iowa and suddenly takes off for real, how long will it take for somebody to bring up the case of Wayne Dumond?
Remember what happened to Michael Dukakis, in 1988, when the Massachusetts governor was pilloried by the GOP for presiding over a prison furlough program that put rapist Willie Horton into the community, with tragic results? Potentially, Wayne Dumond is Mike Huckabee’s Willie Horton.
The short version: In 1985, in eastern Arkansas, Dumond was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years after he was convicted for kidnapping and raping a teenage cheerleader. Some critics thought the sentence was excessive, particularly considering the fact that, while he was awaiting trial in ‘85, Dumond had been castrated by a pair of masked vigilantes. In 1992, state authorities decreed that Dumond should be allowed to petition the state parole board; he then asked to be freed, but the board said no.
Enter Huckabee, who became governor in 1996. Two months after taking office, he announced that he intended to set Dumond free. Shortly thereafter, the parole board did so. Huckabee congratulated Dumond, and told him in a letter, “I feel that parole is the best way for your reintroduction to society take place.”
Due to various logistics, Dumond wasn’t released until 1999. A year later, he moved to Missouri – where he sexually assaulted and murdered a 39-year-old woman.
When asked about this case recently, Huckabee said, “I did not have this apprehension that something horrible like that would happen…There’s nothing you can say, but my gosh, it’s the thing you pray never happens. And it did.”
Was this a case of Christian forgiveness gone awry? If Mike Huckabee takes off as a candidate – and he still needs a lot more money, if he expects to play in the big primary states on Feb.5 - then he’ll surely be asked to say a lot more.