WASHINGTON - To Mike Huckabee, Baptist minister, former governor, and GOP candidate for president, being a good Christian is about redemption and forgiveness and recognizing his own frailties so he can be more understanding of the shortcomings of others.
It's an attitude that drives much of Huckabee's political agenda, including the assertion - unusual for a conservative Republican - that prisons are full of people who would be better off in drug treatment than behind bars. But there is one man Huckabee believed deserved a second chance, convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who continues to haunt Huckabee's burgeoning presidential campaign.
Huckabee, whose self-deprecating humor and easy candor have charmed many on the campaign trail, bristles when asked about the case, in which Dumond - now dead - was paroled from an Arkansas prison, with then- governor Huckabee's endorsement, only to sexually assault and kill a woman in Missouri.
"It was one of those things I just feel horrible about. You just ache all the way to the bone over what happened," the former Arkansas governor said in an interview. "But nobody could know that" Dumond would attack again, he said.
Dumond's case is notorious in Arkansas. In 1984, he raped a 17-year-old girl. While awaiting trial at his home, he was castrated by, he said, masked intruders. Later, after Dumond went to prison for life, some people in Arkansas saw the sentence as excessive, especially given his mutilation.
Huckabee was one, and, after becoming governor in 1996, he announced his desire to commute Dumond's sentence. Dumond's rape victim, Ashley Stevens, saw it differently.
Stevens, now 40 and living in the western United States, said she tried to persuade Huckabee not to shorten the sentence for Dumond.
"I told [Huckabee]: If you ever let him out, he's going to do it again," she said in an interview.
She was able to get a meeting with the governor - who, she said, had not spoken to her before announcing his intention to commute Dumond's sentence - but realized Huckabee had "made up his mind." So Stevens stood up, she said, walked over to Huckabee, who was seated on a sofa, squatted down and thrust her face inches from his.
"I said, 'This is how close I was to Dumond's face for an hour,' " Stevens recalled. " 'I'll never forget his face, and you'll never forget mine.' "
The parole board - following a closed meeting with Huckabee - decided to let Dumond go. The following year, Dumond committed the Missouri slaying. He died in prison in 2005.
If Huckabee, who is creeping upward in the polls, gains more momentum, the case is certain to become an issue. Stevens said she is prepared to campaign actively against him if he becomes a serious candidates for president or vice president.
Bloggers have already dubbed the matter "Huckabee's Willie Horton," referring to the case of a Massachusetts man who was paroled during Michael Dukakis's tenure as Massachusetts governor, and then raped a Maryland woman and terrorized her fiancé. The episode tainted the onetime Democratic presidential nominee's campaign even though Dukakis had not personally intervened on Horton's behalf.
And a surge in the Huckabee campaign - once seen as a quixotic mission by a man hoping to become the second governor from Hope, Ark., to make it to the White House - no longer seems unthinkable. Huckabee placed second in the GOP Iowa straw poll, in which Senator John McCain of Arizona and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani chose not to compete. Afterward, Huckabee pulled ahead of McCain there in a recent statewide poll, and he is edging up in other early primary states.
Huckabee wins over crowds by reciting his powerful personal story - he was the first male in his family to graduate from high school - and interjecting his signature humor. Dangerously overweight and diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 2003, Huckabee lost 110 pounds and used the experience to initiate state programs to counter childhood obesity and support preventive healthcare.
A guitarist who plays in a band called Capitol Offense, Huckabee last year pardoned Rolling Stones star Keith Richards for a 31-year-old driving violation. Asked by reporters if he'd do the same for the average citizen, Huckabee said no, but quipped, "If you can play guitar like Keith Richards, I'd do it for you."
Huckabee is also considered an attractive contender for vice president, because he is a Southerner and has strong credentials with Christian conservatives unhappy with the leading Republican candidates for president.
"Mine is the only campaign that hasn't had any backward motion," Huckabee said in the interview, scrolling down a message on his Blackberry that showed him inching up in polls in early primary states - even in Michigan, where Huckabee has yet to campaign.
On paper, Huckabee should be the darling of the religious conservatives. He serves as a Baptist minister and has not given up the title to run for office. He has a solid antiabortion record, approving several pieces of legislation in Arkansas to limit access to abortion, and supports a constitutional amendment banning abortion. He opposes using discarded embryos for stem cell research. He supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
But Christian conservatives have yet to rally around Huckabee, despite the fact that they have expressed public unhappiness with the leading contenders, Giuliani, McCain, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Their reticence has little to do with Huckabee's record and everything to do with the former governor's perceived ability to raise money and compete in a general election, according to both Huckabee campaign staff and religious community leaders.
"When we started putting the game plan together we started meeting with leaders of the evangelical community," said Huckabee's campaign manager, Chip Saltsman. "They all said, 'Governor, we really like you. We think you're great. But you can't win.' "
Richard Land, an old friend of Huckabee's who is a senior official with the Southern Baptist Convention, called Huckabee a "skillful candidate" who suffers from a perception that he is a long-shot contender. "So far, I don't think Governor Huckabee has been able to convince enough voters that he can beat" the Democratic nominee, Land said.
Huckabee is different from many politically active evangelicals. Faith, Huckabee said, does not merely influence his public policy; it drives it. He rejects the fire-and-brimstone warnings delivered by some fellow religious conservatives and instead frequently talks about the need for forgiveness and diplomacy.
"When I see people who are very confrontational, you know what they're against. You're not sure what they're for," Huckabee said. "I believe that there's a place for judgment and for justice - don't get me wrong. But I think sometimes people mask their own personal anger in the form of righteous indignation."
"Being a Christian does not make me think I'm better than somebody," Huckabee added. " It makes me realize that I personally fall short of God's standards. . . . If I can see my own frailties, then I ought to be able to recognize that everyone else has them too."
Rick Caldwell, Huckabee's college roommate at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., said Huckabee's faith "causes him to have strong convictions, but it also causes him to have a lot of grace with other people, a lot of tolerance and understanding." Evangelicals, Caldwell said, will throw their support behind his friend as Huckabee improves in the polls.
Trailing in national polls, Huckabee has yet to draw the excruciating national scrutiny given to several of the leading candidates, and if the former governor continues to rise, he is likely to be quizzed anew about several conflicts he has had in Arkansas. Huckabee tussled with local Arkansas media about renovations of the governor's mansion and the destruction of computer hard drives from Huckabee's office before he left as governor.
He also has had a running feud with the Club for Growth - which he calls "the Club for Greed" - which ran ads attacking him for raising taxes to improve schools.
And the Dumond case is likely to reemerge, dredging up not only the gruesome details of the attacks but the complicated political connections. Stevens, the rape victim, is a distant cousin of Bill Clinton. When he was Arkansas governor, Clinton refused requests to reduce Dumond's sentence. But while Clinton was off campaigning for president in 1992, his lieutenant governor, Jim Guy Tucker, commuted Dumond's sentence to 39 1/2 years, making Dumond eligible for parole.