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Election 2008

The Momentum of Mike Huckabee

John Moe

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Mike Huckabee
(Andrea Melendez-Pool/Getty Images)
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Mike Huckabee is touring the hallways of Principal Financial Group in Des Moines. I'm getting jostled, elbowed, and at one point someone punches me in the head. Accidentally. I think. You can tell a campaign is gaining momentum when you get punched in the head.

"Tougher with a big entourage isn't it?" I ask him.

"It's a little different, yeah. But you know what? It's a little better too," he says.

He's been rising fast, displaying Huckmentum, as recent polls show great dissatisfaction among GOP voters over the candidates they have to choose from. So do people like Huckabee or hate the other guys? Well, he does offer novelty. In a race where a Clinton is running to replace a Bush who replaced a Clinton who replaced a Bush, here comes this ... Huckabee.

"Republicans aren't right all the time and Democrats aren't wrong all the time," he says in a speech that day. "I've made some other people mad because I said I'm a conservative but I'm not mad at anybody about it."

The guy's funny. A former Baptist minister, he can work a room and come off as a regular person. In fact, much of his political thinking seems to spring from his own experiences. He supports music education and also plays bass guitar. He lost 110 pounds and favors health care reform that focuses on individual fitness. And he's ready to take on muffin makers: "You know, when you and I were kids, a muffin was this size. Today you go to Starbucks and honestly it's bigger than most freshly born children. But at some point we have to start thinking about, does anyone need a muffin bigger than their head?"

In a crowded presidential field, Huckabee has differentiated himself from the pack. But not just because of his cheerfulness and his muffin crusade. He has been criticized by fiscal conservatives for raising taxes while governor of Arkansas, a charge he's used to parrying. "Most everybody who ever governs does (raise taxes)," he points out. "Ronald Reagan raised taxes by a billion dollars in 1967 after campaigning in 1966 saying he wouldn't. But does anyone in the Republican Party call Ronald Reagan a liberal?"

While in Des Moines, Huckabee met with a group of retired generals regarding interrogation policies at Guantanamo Bay. Afterwards, in a position different from opponents Romney and Giuliani, he condemned torture and called for the base to be shut down. "The goal is to protect America, the goal is to make us safer, more secure. And if torture doesn't do that, it fails to achieve its purpose," he says. "But more importantly, it fails to live up to the traditions of the United States of America, which has always had as its essence that we are a nation of honor."

Although statements like those have led to him being called a moderate or even a liberal, Huckabee has tremendous support among religious conservatives. He favors a constitutional amendment banning abortion, talks openly about religion, and disavows evolution.

The impossibility of pegging Huckabee as one type of candidate is part of his novelty. Of course just because you're different, doesn't mean you get to be president, just ask Howard Dean. But you do get noticed. Since Huckabee's surge, there's been scrutiny about past statements on AIDS and Cuba, and his role in the release of a convicted rapist who went on to commit sexual assault and murder.

But perhaps the ultimate litmus test for this candidate reaches back to a debate from the late 60s and early 70s. Something, of all the candidates running for President, only Mike Huckabee can qualitatively put to rest: Who is the better bass player? Paul McCartney or John Entwistle of The Who. Huckabee has a real coalition builder of an answer.

"McCartney was more innovative, Entwistle had a more traditional concept of the bass but McCartney was the most innovative bass player of that era. He really was. And let me tell you this I did: I was in Los Angeles and I got to play John Entwistle's actual Thunderbird bass. It's at the West LA Music Company and Don Griffin, the guy who owns that store, owns that guitar. And so he pulls it out and I got to play on that guitar that he played on all The Who's earlier stuff.

"Mitt Romney will never play that guitar," I said.

Huckabee smiled. "If he did, he probably wouldn't play all that well."

  • Music Bridge:
    Make Out Machine
    Artist: Slow Poke
    CD: At Home (Palmetto)
More stories from our Election 2008 series


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