It speaks volumes about the fluidity (and quality) of the Republican race that the hottest candidate in the pack is a guy who (a) doesn't believe in evolution, and (b) doesn't have a shred of foreign policy expertise - nor, apparently, the antennae to monitor key foreign policy developments.
The (a) factor clearly isn't hurting Mike Huckabee as he trolls successfully for religious conservative voters in Iowa. But if his candidacy truly takes off, that pesky (b) factor could be a big problem for him down the road. I'll say why in a moment, but first, let's look at the (b) factor in action.
Last night, Huckabee had dinner with some reporters in Des Moines. Here's what transpired.
Q: "I don’t know to what extent you have been briefed or been able to take a look at the NIE report that came out yesterday..."
A: "I’m sorry?"
Q: "The NIE report, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. Have you been briefed or been able to take a look at it — "
Q: "Have you heard of the finding?"
OK, I understand that Huckabee has been very busy this week - for instance, lining up an endorsement from biblical values maven Tim LaHaye, author of novels about the coming end of the world - and I understand that he is still operating his campaign on a shoestring and therefore probably doesn't have foreign policy briefers at his elbow.
But still. Imagine the laughter on the right if a Democratic candidate had confessed to being clueless about this development.
The NIE report is, shall we say, kind of a big story. Sixteen intelligence agencies conclude that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, and signaled the Bush administration over the summer that this conclusion was likely....that story was on every front page and it dominated the TV news. Yesterday, President Bush had held a morning press conference about it. The Democratic candidates had talked about it during an afternoon PBS debate. It's the kind of story that a presidential candidate tends to notice.
Huckabee hadn't noticed. But it didn't stop him from trying to react to the story:
"I don’t know where the intelligence is coming from that says they have suspended the program or how credible that is versus the view that they actually are expanding it...And I’ve heard, the last two weeks, supposed reports that they are accelerating it and it could be having a reactor in a much shorter period of time than originally been thought."
Again, if Huckabee had tracked the news reports at all, he would have learned "where the intelligence is coming from." For starters, spy agencies reportedly intercepted a conversation in which a senior Iranian military official complained about the shuttering of the program; and news reports indicate that the classified version of the report was footnoted with more than 1,000 pieces of fresh information. If Huckabee had known any of this, as opposed to saying "I don't know," then perhaps he would've been able to more thoughtfully assess the validity of the "supposed reports" that he says he has "heard."
Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas with no experience on international issues, is focused almost exclusively on domestic front. He recently complained to National Review magazine that he gets exasperated by all the debate questions about Iraq; in his words, "we still go back through it over and over and over again. I just never quite understood why we continued to plow the same ground." That's how the Democrats used to sound, circa the 2002 election season, when they wanted the national security stuff to just go away so that they could talk about domestic issues.
Perhaps Huckabee's insurgent campaign will gain traction in Iowa and complicate life for his rivals. But, bottom line, it's hard to imagine that Republican voters - who still view the GOP as the strong national security party, and who consider that priority to be paramount in the post-9/11 world - would ultimately entrust the '08 nomination to a guy who has no national security creds...and who had to be clued into the contents of the season's biggest national security story. I see the veep slot as Mike Huckabee's ceiling.
LATE UPDATE: Huckabee was on CNN today, trying to spin his obliviousness:
"I had been up about 20 hours at that time, and I had not even so much as had the opportunity to look at a newspaper. We were literally going from early in the morning until late that night and talking to guys like you. And so I had not had an opportunity to be briefed on it. There are going to be times out there on the campaign trail, Wolf - you've been on the trail, you know - that candidates are literally driven from one event to the next. And it would have been nice had someone been able to first say here's some things that are going on, that are taking place. That didn't happen. It's going to happen again."
I'm sure Wolf Blitzer really appreciated it when Huckabee essentially said: C'mon, Wolf, you're out there, you know how easy it is to whiff on a major international development.