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Mike Huckabee: Surging & Scrutizized

Mike Huckabee: Surging & Scrutizized

By Bill Berkowitz

Dark Horse's Rise Tied to Backing of Religious Right

Although several of the leading Republican Party presidential candidates have won endorsements from Religious Right leaders and organizations, no one has brought more Christian conservative leaders into their camp than former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

"Mike Huckabee has worked hard to get the Religious Right's backing and it seems to be paying off," the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told me.

Huckabee's campaign advertisements open with the words "Christian Leader" in large white capitals. "Faith doesn't just influence me. It really defines me. I don't have to wake up every day wondering, what do I need to believe?" he says in the ad.

Now that he's at, or near the top, of the pack, his record is being closely examined by the media. So far, it's not a pretty picture.

'Christian Leader' boosted by host of religious right bigwigs

"At the Values Voter Summit in Washington last October, he gave a very well-received speech hitting on all the themes that are important to the Religious Right," Lynn pointed out. "It clearly energised the crowd, and in fact he later won a straw poll of attendees by a wide margin.

Just a few weeks ago, Huckabee was viewed as just another third-tier candidate who hadn't made much headway. Now, however, with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries coming up quickly, he has been creating buzz.

In addition to being available for numerous media ops, he performed well in various Republican debates, and he received an increasing number of endorsements from important conservative Christian evangelical leaders.

While Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani secured an unexpected endorsement from Rev. Pat Robertson (stirring up a hornet's nest in the Religious Right), Huckabee -- who is closest politically and ideologically to the Religious Right -- has received a series of endorsements from such lesser known but nevertheless significant Christian right leaders as Janet Folger, president of Faith2Action, Rick Scarborough, founder and president of Vision America, the Rev. Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association.

Jerry Falwell, Jr., the chancellor of Liberty University and the son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, has also come on board, as have Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, authors of the best-selling "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic novels. LaHaye's wife, Beverly - another Huckabee endorser -- is the founder and chairman of the board of Concerned Women of America, which claims to be the largest women's political organization in the U.S.

"During the 25 years I have known Mike Huckabee, he has proven himself to be a Christian conservative who stands without apology for the pro-life, pro-marriage platform that is so important in this time of moral collapse," Tim LaHaye said during an early December appearance with the candidate in Iowa.

An ordained Southern Baptist pastor, Huckabee has charted a course that not only includes orthodox conservative Christian positions -- anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage -- but one that also appears to reveal a certain level of compassion.

The former Arkansas governor's rise in the Iowa polls is largely due to his courting a statewide network of evangelical pastors and to emphasizing his own faith.

Lynn noted that Huckabee has been "speaking in a lot of fundamentalist churches around the country, which, while it doesn't always receive media attention, has moved his candidacy forward."

Last week, Huckabee announced the formation of the Iowa Pastors Coalition and the endorsement of Iowa family values leader Chuck Hurley, the president of the Iowa Family Policy Center.

The compassionate Huckabee surfaced during CNN's recent YouTube Republican debate during a question about immigration. Although generally supporting a hard line on immigration, Huckabee clearly separated himself from the field by saying that it was wrong to punish the children of undocumented workers for the illegal actions of their parents. That kind of stance didn't sit well with his opponents, particularly former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who slammed him for seeking to "giv[e] scholarships to illegal aliens".

In one recent interview, the former Arkansas governor declared, "I am like a lot of folks who are tired of thinking the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street." He has denounced "immoral" CEO salaries, and warned, "People will only endure this for so many years before there is a revolt."

Huckabee's so-called populism has riled the right. The conservative anti-tax Club for Growth is angry with Huckabee, and Robert Novak has called him an advocate of "class struggle. "In a recent column entitled "The False Conservative," Robert Novak maintained that while "Huckabee is campaigning as a conservative ... serious Republicans know that he is a high-tax, protectionist, big-government advocate of a strong hand in the Oval Office directing the lives of Americans."

Scrutinized ... and not liking it

Although he raised his hand at a debate last May when asked which candidates disbelieved the theory of evolution, he has lately bristled at being asked over and over again about evolution. At a recent Iowa press conference he pointed out that while he "believe[d] God created the heavens and the Earth," he (Huckabee) "wasn't there when he did it, so how he did it, I don't know."

He added that it was "an irrelevant question to ask me -- I'm happy to answer what I believe, but what I believe is not what's going to be taught in 50 different states. Education is a state function. The more state it is, and the less federal it is, the better off we are."

While Huckabee still has a number of formidable hurdles to leap over -- he needs to raise lots more money, and he still has a relatively small staff -- the fact that the field is so divided is clearly to his advantage.

And, as he has moved up in the polls, his record is being examined a lot more closely.

AIDS, drawing a blank on the NIE and the pardon of a rapist

The Associated Press reported that as a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in 1992, Huckabee advocated isolating AIDS patients from the general public, opposed increased federal funding in the search for a cure and said homosexuality could "pose a dangerous public health risk." Responding to the AP story, Huckabee said that his "comments came at a time when the public was still learning about HIV and AIDS and promised to do `everything possible to transform the promise of a vaccine and a cure into reality.'"

In Iowa last week, he was asked for a comment on the just-released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that found that it had given up its nuclear weapons program four years ago. Appearing befuddled, Huckabee said that he was not familiar with the NIE, hadn't read it, been briefed on it, or even heard of it.

The Associated Press reported in early December that a group affiliated with Huckabee has been "making automated phone calls that favor Huckabee and criticize his rivals." Huckabee has urged an end to the calls, while Romney asked Iowa's attorney general to investigate the group's activities.

Huckabee is also under fire for his involvement in, and repeated denials, that while governor, he recommended parole for Arkansas rapist and murderer Wayne Dumond.

Still, an Associated Press/Ipsos nationwide poll released Friday indicates that he has vaulted into second place after Giuliani. While the former New York City mayor has 26 percent among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, about where he has been since spring, Huckabee is at 18 percent, up from 10 percent in an AP-Ipsos survey a month ago and three percent in July.

Arizona Sen. John McCain has 13 percent, Mitt Romney 12 percent and Thompson 11 percent.

"Huckabee's rise should dispel claims that the Religious Right is dead," Americans United's Barry Lynn added. "This movement remains a huge bloc in the GOP [Republican Party] and, under the right circumstances it is quite capable of handing him the nomination."


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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