Muscatine, Iowa

Here in this small but engaging river city, known for its watermelons and sunsets, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, wants the two dozen Iowans seated around him in Green's Tea and Coffee to know that he's "leading" in the polls. This is startling news, since Huckabee has never polled above single digits in any survey. But Huckabee proceeds to explain. He cites the AP's interpretation of a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll saying that no top-tier candidate--not Rudy Giuliani or John McCain or Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson--did better than "none of the above." Pausing, Huckabee announces, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am †none of the above.'"

Laughter fills the spacious room at Green's Tea, which offers a splendid view of the Mississippi. The crowd warms to the Arkansan, and you can see why Huckabee gets high marks for "likability." This asset is not lost on his aides, one of whom came up with a bumper sticker declaring, "I Like Mike." It's an inspired choice. Not only do you have rhyme, but the three words echo the slogan of a Republican (Dwight D. Eisenhower, in case you asked) whose nickname was "Ike." Mike, of course, would like to be like Ike, who was twice elected president.

The poll Huckabee cites doesn't really bear the interpretation that the wire service gave it. "None of the above" was not an actual option someone could pick, but "don't know" and "not sure" and "none" were, and the percentage of Republicans choosing those options, which the AP story added up and characterized as favoring "none of the above," was the largest. Presumably, if the pollsters had pushed respondents on which way they were leaning, more would have named a candidate.

Be that as it may, the AP-Ipsos poll, when compared with an earlier one, does suggest more uncertainty among Republicans regarding who their nominee should be, and Huckabee would take that as a sign of what he says he sees on the campaign trail--increasing dissatisfaction among Republican voters with the top-tier candidates. Indeed, Huckabee believes, as he proceeds to tell the crowd here at Green's Tea, that there is a "crisis in our Republican party." By that he means "people are confused as to why it is we are Republicans and what it is we are supposed to do to get elected." Huckabee makes this point everywhere he goes, and this warm sunny day in late July finds him, after Muscatine, in Washington, Ottumwa, and Mt. Pleasant.

In an interview aboard his rented Winnebago, Huckabee--who is 51, has been married to Janet for 33 years, and has three grown children--says his strategy is to stay in the race as long as it takes for the party to figure out its "purpose and direction" and realize that the top-tier candidates would disappoint as president and that he is the best choice. "I know deep down that I meet the criteria for what I think the Republican base is looking for in a candidate and frankly what the American people are looking for in a president."

Iowa, which Huckabee has visited more often than any other state, certainly offers an opportunity for the GOP to come to its senses, in Huckabeean terms, and start showing, well, its liking for Mike. On August 11, as many as 30,000 Iowa Republicans will gather in Ames on the campus of Iowa State University and vote for the person they'd like to see as their party's nominee. This is the Republicans' straw poll, which George W. Bush won the last time it was conducted, in 1999. The results offer an early measure of organizational strength and candidate appeal, and past winners have almost always prevailed in the caucus, held in January. Huckabee says he doesn't have to win at Ames, but he does have to show "a level of momentum building." He has been reported as saying he needs to finish at least in fourth place. With John McCain and Rudy Giuliani having decided not to participate in the straw poll, fourth place seems within reach, since, assuming a first place finish by Mitt Romney, as most political observers do, Huckabee would be competing for one of three places with Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Tommy Thompson.

But Huckabee envisions a scenario in which even fifth place would be okay--"if fifth is not much different from fourth and second is not much different from fifth." In other words, if the second, third, fourth, and fifth-place finishers are bunched together--and also, Huckabee adds, if, in their bunching, they are not very far behind the man in first. What Huckabee wants is a finish strong enough "for me to go to donors and say there is a reason to contribute to this campaign." And thus to keep him in the race.

Huckabee knows that he may not do well enough to raise the money for a campaign that so far has reported $1.3 million in contributions--dwarfed by the $35.4 million reported by Giuliani and the $34.5 million by Romney (and that doesn't include Romney's own contributions to himself). But should Huckabee fail on his own terms at Ames, that wouldn't necessarily constitute a rejection of his message, he says. It could mean that "we just didn't have the resources" to do much better. In any case, it would spell an end to a campaign that from the beginning has been a long shot.

Huckabee is, as you'd expect him to be, optimistic about his prospects. The crowds have been good, he says, with positive reaction afterwards. "People are saying, †I'll be there at Ames, I'm with you, you're the guy I'm going to support." Aides say that Huckabee is gaining support in heavily Republican northwest Iowa and also in places in the northeast. He has moved up a bit in recent polls, and the RealClearPolitics Average (which includes the unannounced Fred Thompson) shows him now in fifth place in Iowa, with 3.8 percent. That's low, very low, but still better than the 1 or 2 percent most second-tier candidates are pulling. And one of the polls used in the RCP Average is Mason-Dixon, whose June survey had Huckabee ahead of John McCain, 7 percent to 6 percent.

Huckabee has written--"every word of it," he told me--From Hope to Higher Ground, one of those books in which a politician tests out an idea, in this case "restoring America's greatness," as the subtitle says. By "America's greatness" Huckabee means a great America, one of hope and optimism, of generational improvement in both material and moral terms. On the stump he describes the great America that was his growing up in Hope, Arkansas: He was the first male "in my entire family ever to graduate high school," and he attributes his achievements to his parents, who, wanting "something better for me," worked multiple jobs, making "enormous sacrifices." That great America, however, is one that Huckabee believes has slipped away. And so, as he told a crowd of 60 assembled in Central Park in downtown Ottumwa, "I want us once again to believe that the greatest generation is not the generation that's already come but the generation that's not been born yet."

To become the greatness president, Huckabee will first have to win the nomination of his own party, and that can't happen, by his own reckoning, unless the GOP comes out of its fog. In our interview, I asked Huckabee about the party's confusion. "It's confused as to what happened last year and the shellacking we took at the polls." He says the war was only one factor, and the real reason was that "we lost touch with basic issues of governing." He cites "inattention" to public corruption and "utter incompetence as to . . . the simplest things government should do, such as getting bottles of water to people stranded on bridges on Interstate 10 in the aftermath of a hurricane [Katrina] and a flood." He points to a tendency to prefer "posturing" to governing, and he sees the failure to constrain spending as evidence of a party failing to live up to its own beliefs about governance.

To Republicans who ask whether "we were thrown out [of power] because we were too conservative or not conservative enough," Huckabee says that's the wrong question. "We weren't enough †up.' We were way too much †down.'" Here Huckabee is speaking in a vocabulary that assumes the listener is acquainted with what he calls "vertical governing," which is treated in his book and which he actually explains on the trail. It's a concept he defines with reference to his ten-and-a-half years as governor, in which capacity it was, as he said at Green's Tea, "not my luxury to just simply make speeches and tell people what to do. I had to do things. I was judged on whether or not the roads got better or worse, whether the schools got better or worse, whether jobs improved or declined, whether wages got better or worse, whether we took better care of our natural resources or didn't, whether taxes went up or down, whether the cost of government got better or worse. It's what I like to call †vertical governing.' Because, quite frankly, the average American isn't that concerned about whether you are left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, even though I am unapologetically . . . to the right of center, probably to the right of most people in this room. But the point is . . . people want . . . vertical leadership, which they expect to lead up and not down. The net result of being elected is not to talk about what the right thing is but to do what's right."

Huckabee is offering what might be called "results conservatism." The conservative part is fundamental because it identifies where governing, for him, must be grounded, in terms of philosophy and ideas. And as he makes his campaign stops, Huckabee takes care to assert his conservatism. He explains how, growing up in a very blue county, he became a conservative "by conviction" when he was a teenager. He states his preferences for "less government, not more" and "lower taxes, not higher." He insists on understanding marriage in traditional terms, as the union of a male and a female. He stresses the sanctity of human life and calls for protecting it from the moment of conception. He criticizes Roe v. Wade as having "imposed an unconstitutional concept of privacy" upon the country. He cites the Tenth Amendment as a bulwark against an overweening federal government. And he underscores that the "first job" of the president "is to protect the American people," which, he emphasizes, means protecting the country against "fanatic jihadists" who are waging "a theological war" against us. Huckabee's results conservatism is not to be confused with President Bush's compassionate conservatism. In fact, Huckabee rejects the latter term on the ground, as he told me, that compassion isn't a matter of political ideology but is related to "your spirit and heart."

Huckabee wants his audiences to know that he doesn't have "several different views" on right to life, say, or taxation or same-sex marriage. The implication is that some of his competitors do. But he doesn't name them. This is a soft approach, and it may not achieve, by August 11 in Ames, the "level of momentum building" necessary to raise the money he needs to stay in the race. In any event, Huckabee knows that he can't maintain that approach if he remains a candidate. At some point he will have to go after those running ahead of him. Because he stresses his pro-life credentials at every stop--"I didn't become pro-life because of politics; I got into politics because I'm pro-life"--I asked him whether he's prepared to make the argument that it would be wrong for a pro-life party to nominate a presidential candidate who is not pro-life, such as the current frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani. He said he will eventually be ready to challenge Giuliani on those grounds. "It's an inevitable argument. It will be made, if not by me, then by many Republican activists."

On specific issues, Huckabee says that the immigration bill failed because it didn't "take care of the first test of a real immigration policy, which is having a secure border." On energy, he declares that we need "to produce our own energy sources" and quit our dependence on foreign sources. On the No Child Left Behind law, he states his agreement with its general thrust and would make only minor changes. On health care, he argues that the country needs to shift from an intervention-based system to one based on prevention. On judges, he says he would appoint judicial conservatives like Antonin Scalia, whom he calls "the gold standard" for judging. And on the question of the Supreme Court's overruling Roe, he's emphatically for it.

On Iraq--a subject that generates only one or two questions at each event--Huckabee supports the surge, and opposes any timetable for pulling troops out, and he accuses Democrats of playing politics. On the war on terrorism more broadly, he says we have to be in it for the long run: "What people don't understand is what we're up against. . . . We're fighting people who don't care if it takes a thousand years. They've been at it for longer than that. A few hundred more years won't matter."

The one big idea Huckabee advances on the stump is the fair tax. Huckabee told me he became a fair-tax proponent after first being attracted to the flat tax. "But then I realized that the flat tax . . . was a tax on productivity, which is not the way you stimulate entrepreneurial activity." During his early campaigning in Iowa, he says, people asked him about the fair tax. "But I wasn't familiar with it." So he bought The Fair Tax Book: Saying Goodbye to the Income Tax and the IRS by Rep. John Lindner of Georgia and Neal Boortz, the Atlanta talk-show host. Huckabee says he read it twice and was persuaded. As he explains the concept in his speeches, the fair tax would replace all current taxes on productivity with a consumption tax of 23 percent on all goods and services (education being the lone exception). It would be so simple to administer, he says, that "a seven-year-old running a lemonade stand would be able to figure it out." We could eliminate the IRS, he adds, since the government no longer would collect taxes. "And"--an applause line--"April 15 would be just another spring day in America."

Huckabee doesn't shy from criticizing President Bush, especially his handling of Iraq. His mistakes include not sending in more troops at the outset. But the president's chief failure, Huckabee says, is one of rhetoric: "One of the most important roles a president plays is that of communicator in chief," and yet Bush has failed "to communicate very effectively" on not only Iraq but also other issues as well. That has weakened his ability to lead, in Huckabee's view, and to produce effective government. A classic case, he told me, was Bush's handling of embryonic stem cell research. The president failed to define the terms of debate, he says. Where the debate should have been over whether the government should fund the research, Huckabee says, it instead became one of whether you supported research and curing disease--the funding question aside.

Huckabee sees himself as excelling as a communicator. He has been a frequent guest on national talk shows, winning generally high marks for his appearances. In fact, he got into "communications" early in life and worked in a variety of speaking capacities before he ever ran for public office. At age 14 he took a job with a 1,000-watt radio station in Hope; he was sports editor during the week and a disc jockey on the weekend. At Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, where he finished in two years and three months with a degree in religion, he worked on-air 40 hours each week at a local radio station. After a year and a half at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, he left to become communications director for a ministry headed up by the evangelist James Robison. At the time, he was only 21.

In 1980 he returned to Arkansas and started a communications business. He was hoping to run for office eventually--"I had been a little political animal as a kid growing up." But Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff asked him to preach one Sunday, and Huckabee, who had been ordained while in college and served as pastor of a small Baptist church in Arkadelphia, agreed. He was asked back, and in a matter of months he was named interim pastor and then senior pastor. After six years at Immanuel, he became senior pastor of Beech Street First Baptist in Texarkana, a church of 2,500 members. He filled that pulpit for six years, too, leaving Beech Street to finally enter politics, as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1992. He lost that race, but won his next, for lieutenant governor in 1993.

Huckabee became governor in 1996 when Jim Guy Tucker was forced to resign as a result of his conviction in Whitewater. Huckabee was reelected governor in 1998, winning the support of 48 percent of black voters, according to CNN's exit polls. Huckabee says he "got things done" as governor, working with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, because he went to the people of his state "to communicate why those things were important." He cites passage of legislation to fund an overhaul of interstate highways in Arkansas and of a bill ensuring clean air indoors, and enactment of an amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The rhetorical presidency, a subject studied by political scientists, is the basis for many Americans' understanding of the presidency. It's the presidency that takes place in public--in speeches and press conferences, television interviews, and the like. It's what the president says, and also--though to a lesser extent--what his aides say. Huckabee has identified this as a critical weakness of the Bush presidency and thinks he could do better. "I really believe our country needs leadership that can not only articulate something we believe in," he told me, "but get it done as well."

Huckabee has also set for himself a major task that would surely test the capability of his rhetorical presidency: passage of the fair tax. On the stump Huckabee talks about the length of the tax code--some 177,000 pages. Imagine how many interests would want to keep the code so long and, for that matter, so complicated, and also how many would want to keep the IRS in business. Huckabee has staked himself to an ambitious domestic policy goal, one worthy of a president.

Here in southeastern Iowa, three things about Huckabee stand out during my time with him. (There would be a fourth if he'd brought along his bass guitar and his band, Capital Offense, which plays "only songs people readily recognize . . . the hits people grew up with.") One is his apprehension about how voters may react to his being from Hope. There was, of course, another man from Hope, Arkansas, who became president of the United States. What are the odds of that happening again? Will Americans want it to happen again? Huckabee recognizes there may be a sort of been-there, done-that feeling out there. On the campaign trail, he meets it head-on: "There was another guy from Hope, Arkansas, who ran for president," he says. "He would have turned out better if he'd stayed there longer," a line that honors Hope at Bill Clinton's expense, something Republican crowds like. "People ask me all the time: Do you really believe that another unknown, obscure governor born in Hope, Arkansas, can become president of the United States. My answer is: Give us one more chance!"

The second thing that stands out about Huckabee is that there is, as he puts it, "less of me"--110 pounds less, to be exact. He lost the weight five years ago after his doctor described to him what the decade he had left to live would be like if he stayed at 300 pounds. ("My scale quit at 280," he quips.) Huckabee took the weight off in nine months, chronicling his story and urging others with a tendency toward amplitude to do as he did in Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork, a title spiced with characteristic humor. Losing as much as Huckabee did, indeed turning around his health and life prospects, is a real accomplishment. As he told me, "You can't fake losing 110 pounds." Huckabee says that while his huge weight loss "is not necessarily a qualification for president," it is "indicative of a person who can set goals and who can actually accomplish them." His accomplishment also gives him standing to make his case about health care--about the need to prevent health problems later by changing behavior now. This fact about Huckabee--his lesser being--does seem to make people at least notice him. In Washington, during the Q&A at the Pizza Ranch (though pizza is not a Huckabee-approved food), one woman brought up the fact that she'd especially wanted to be at the event because, battling her own weight problem, she had just read Digging Your Grave. She said she was going to Ames to vote for him.

The third thing about Huckabee is that he's a former Baptist minister. He would be the first ever former pastor of a church to be president. "Probably the best preparation I ever had to be a governor was to be a pastor of a local congregation," he says. He concedes that "people think of me as a pastor who became a political person. But the truth is that I was a person in communications who backed into the pastorate who then went into politics." That he once was a pastor seems to diminish the need Huckabee might feel to discuss, as other candidates have, aspects of his faith or his "faith journey." He makes reference to his years as a Baptist pastor in ways intended to put people at ease, in case they're not. "Don't hold that against me, all of you non-Baptists," he told the crowd in Ottumwa. "A lady when I first started running for office asked me, †Are you one of those narrow-minded Baptist ministers who think only Baptists go to heaven?' I said, †No ma'am, actually I'm more narrow than that because I don't think all the Baptists are going to make it!"

Huckabee's chance of breaking through at Ames will depend on whether substantial portions of Iowa's large population of social conservatives, most of whom are frequent churchgoers, turn out for him. There is competition for these voters, especially from Sam Brownback, who is aggressively seeking the support of pastors. When I asked Huckabee whether he had anyone serving as his religious outreach coordinator--as some other candidates do--he looked at me, puzzled, and then said, "In my case, I am the coordinator." Huckabee's sign-up sheets--on which you indicate whether you're going to participate in the straw poll--have a place where you can write down your church or church affiliation. As for white evangelical Protestants in particular, who are overwhelmingly Republican, Huckabee doesn't have to "reach out" to them--because, as he sees it, "I am these people.'"

Huckabee may not have the right message or he may not be the man for his message. His campaign could soon lie limp as a spent balloon. On the other hand, if Huckabee moves up at Ames and, come January, he's in the top tier, he'll be drawing scrutiny--of his record as governor (including on taxes and size of government, where there is criticism from conservatives), his time as a pastor, his jobs after seminary, his boyhood in Hope. His reputation with the Arkansas press for a thin skin, not apparent in his southeastern Iowa visits, will be reviewed. In truth, Huckabee may have a better chance of being picked as a running mate than winning the GOP nomination. But right now, before Ames, before he either crashes or takes off, Huckabee can take a moment to ponder a presidential race a year from now in which his party seems likely to face someone he knows perhaps better than any other Republican contender does--Hillary Clinton.

"Republicans underestimate her at their own peril," he says. "She's extra disciplined, very focused, extremely intelligent, very different from her husband, who was a true pragmatist. She's much more ideological. But I'm appalled when people are so personal in their attacks on her. . . . Nothing will engender more support for her than being perceived as a bully of a guy attacking this woman."

And who would compete against her without bullying her or--the other danger he sees--condescending to her? Why, Mike Huckabee. "It'd be a great race," says this man from Hope. "It would be the best chance Republicans have to win."

Terry Eastland is publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Next Page