Huckabee's a marathoner with a kick

Published May 27, 2007

In recent weeks, we have been trying to make the case for how each major 2008 presidential contender could win. These aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought. Last up was Democrat Barack Obama. This week, Republican Mike Huckabee. 

Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley had planned to stay on the sidelines as Republican presidential contenders jockeyed for key endorsements in his widely watched primary state. Then he saw the debate performances of longshot presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor he had known for years.

"The last thing that would seem to be politically correct would be to jump on the horse of what appears to be a second-tier candidate. But after watching that last performance I felt that this guy should be president of the United States, and if I sit on the sidelines much longer, will he have much chance?" Beasley said. "He's in a position where if he's going to make it to that first tier, he needs to do it now."

So Beasley last weekend threw his potent endorsement to Huckabee, feeding the growing buzz that this Baptist preacher turned reform-minded governor has a real shot to be the sleeper Republican contender of 2008.

No question Huckabee had the one-liner of the last Fox News debate: "We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop." By week's end his campaign Web site had added a barbershop pole to keep tally of badly needed campaign donations.

To see those debates, or to see Huckabee mesmerize a living room or sprawling banquet hall of undecided Republicans, or hold his own against the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on TV, one can't help wonder about all the pining among staunch conservatives for actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. A proven conservative - and strong communicator - is already in the race, and this guy's actually been an executive, instead of actor playing one.

"Huckabee's a remarkable fellow and an amazing communicator, " said Orlando attorney John Stemberger, who is neutral so far but last weekend hosted Huckabee and the less charismatic Sam Brownback at the Florida Family Policy Council annual gala dinner. "He's the kind of guy that could really change the face of the Republican Party."

Indeed, a Republican who in his last election won more than 40 percent the African-American vote ought to make Democrats very nervous. Politicians from Hope, Ark., have been underestimated before.

People are more likely to know him as the guy who lost 110 pounds than the man Time magazine called one of America's top governors or who drastically reduced his state's welfare rolls and the number of uninsured children.

Obviously the 51-year-old Huckabee is a longshot for winning the nomination, especially after raising a paltry $500, 000 in the first quarter of the year. But this is one of the most unpredictable elections cycles we've seen in a long time, and a plausible path remains for a sleeper candidate to seize the GOP nomination.

"The good news for me is there is discomfort and dissatisfaction with those that are considered the three front-runners, " Huckabee told the St. Petersburg Times. "That tells me no matter what people are saying to this none of them have settled this, and chances are none of them will be in it when it is settled."

Beasley is not the only sought after Republican to see the potential.

In New Hampshire, Deb Vanderbeek, chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Jeb Bradley, had been fending off offers from presidential campaigns. Then she spent a day in February watching this maverick evangelical win over a Granite State gathering with wit, substance and sincerity.

"By the time that day was over, my decision was made. I thought this is exactly the type of leader this country needs, and also the perfect type of candidate to run in New Hampshire, " she recounted. "He says it best, but he really is a conservative who's not angry about it. He's genuine, he's not performing on a stage, and people like that."

Small-state governors - think Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton - tend to thrive on the personal, one-on-one retail politics that states like Iowa and New Hampshire insist upon, and Huckabee is a natural charmer. But he needs quickly to leverage the buzz he's received in recent weeks and show some viability to attract money.

His biggest, and perhaps last, opportunity could come in August at the non-binding Iowa straw poll in Ames. Officially a meaningless beauty contest, it receives loads of attention and can set perceptions.

"I really believe Mike Huckabee is going to fare very well. If he gets into the top three in that straw poll, I really believe he will win the Iowa caucuses, " said former Iowa gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats.

Though a consistent social conservative he is not a pure small-government conservative. While he claims to have signed the first tax cut in Arkansas history and has signed a no-new-taxes pledge, some tax groups have jumped on him for a voter-approved gas tax increase for transportation and a sales tax increase for court-ordered school improvements.

A lot of pundits think Fred Thompson will fill the conservative vacuum Huckabee's aiming for. But potential candidates invariably are much more attractive than actual candidates, and some top conservative activists who have met with Thompson lately are decidedly unimpressed.

"He's intriguing to conservatives but he doesn't excite us. With few exceptions all of us are nonplussed - there's no energy, no passion, particularly for our causes, " said Richard Viguerie, who has been called a "funding father" of the modern conservative movement. "I don't know the name of any conservative around Fred Thompson. Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander? They certainly don't warm our hearts."

Winning the nomination requires a lot to go right for Huckabee and wrong for the leading candidates, but given his strengths it's certainly conceivable. Then comes the general election where Democrats would have to face an engaging and impossible maverick who has expanded access to health care, raised the minimum wage and won over traditional Democratic constituencies.

President Huckabee? There's a long campaign season, and Huckabee is a marathon runner who knows how often front-runners falter.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.