The Spirit of Reagan: Mike Huckabee

Des Moines Register
David Yepsen
October 30, 2007

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's been the hot candidate in the Republican race since he finished second in the Iowa GOP's straw poll back in August.

Oh, there was a little time out for some chatter about Fred Thompson, but as he has fallen flat, the talk about Huckabee has resumed.

In recent days, that talk has escalated to a new level of buzz: Huckabee's doing so well in Iowa, he just might be able to win the Iowa Republican caucuses.

Wow. Conventional wisdom dictates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's going to win Iowa. Ever since that straw poll, the buzzmeisters have slotted Huckabee to take second or third. To suggest he's going to win Iowa is taking it to a new level.

It makes Huckabee people wince. Romney's had a juggernaut in Iowa for months. He's spent millions, runs lots of TV commercials, has made a couple of hundred appearances in the state and has staff all over it, including those in a sprawling suburban office park.

Huckabee's low-budget campaign is, well, the difference between Beacon Hill and a trailer park. He's got only eight full-time staffers and runs his operation out of a low-rent storefront in downtown Des Moines. If homeless people went to caucuses, they'd have great access to Huckabee's campaign.

Like Huckabee, Romney is fond of telling people he ran and won in a Democratic state. It's also true Romney ran as a liberal on social issues such as gay rights and abortion. Had he taken the positions on those issues that he proclaims now, he never would have been elected in Massachusetts.

Huckabee, on the other hand, has been consistent, and GOP stalwarts are noticing that difference between the two men. Huckabee's rallied enough social conservatives to force Sam Brownback out of the race.

While first place is a bit of a stretch, Huckabee's in a good position to win second. His fundraising is improving, and he's going to add staff.

After Thompson's late start, he's lighting no fires in Iowa. His speech at the big Reagan Dinner Saturday night was a boilerplate thing he could have given anywhere. Romney didn't show. Huckabee got the only standing ovation.

Huckabee's success has attracted attacks from conservative groups and news organizations who criticize him for implementing a tax increase the voters also supported. Huckabee said in an interview that some of these attacks are coming from "elitist" conservatives and "ideologues."

He said "you always ought to be governing by your basic principles, but you also have to understand that government has to work." He says the attacks are evidence of his success.

"I'm a hunter," he notes. "You never point the gun at a dead carcass."

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. As we chart Huckabee's success in the 2008 contest, it is most useful now to concentrate on his message. It is a positive, inclusive, good-humored one. As Republicans seek to rebuild from their defeat of 2006 and try to stave off a similar loss in 2008, they might study the Book of Huckabee.

"I'm a conservative, but I'm not mean about it," he tells audiences. He shows up at events with minority groups. His pro-life message also encompasses health care for poor women and a concern for children. His talk about education reform includes developing creative skills through art and music.

He had fun playing the bass guitar in his band at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake - an event that attracted more than 600 people on Friday. A former Baptist pastor, Huckabee peppers his speeches with Scripture and rock-music lyrics.

Unlike some Republican presidential candidates, who grew up in well-to-do families, Huckabee tells audiences his mother grew up in a house with dirt floors, and on his father's side, he is the first male to graduate from high school. That seems to give him a populist bent - and an understanding for poor people - that isn't seen in the Ivy League conservatives.

At a time when GOP candidates are falling all over themselves to rekindle the spirit of Ronald Reagan in their party, Huckabee's coming as close as anyone.