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Scot Lehigh

Huckabee outrunning his GOP companions

Concord, N.H.

THE BEST description of what's happening with Mike Huckabee may just be the old joke about the two lawyers who are out on a hike when they startle a large bear. The first lawyer whips open his briefcase, removes a pair of running shoes, and puts them on.

"Do you really think you can outrun the bear?" the second asks.

His companion offers this, ah, grizzly reply: "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you."

Outrunning one's companions has long been the challenge for the second-tier presidential candidates in this large Republican field. It's a challenge Huckabee has steadily met. Consider the way things are breaking for this latest aspirant from Hope, Ark.

Last week, the campaign bear, having already devoured Jim Gilmore and Tommy Thompson, pounced upon Sam Brownback.

The departure of the conservative Kansan gives Huckabee, a Baptist minister by training, a clearer path to court religious voters.

On Friday, the former Arkansas governor got a favorable column from David Brooks, the New York Times's influential conservative. On Saturday, Huckabee finished close behind Mitt Romney in a straw poll of the Values Voter Summit, a group of Christian conservatives.

Meanwhile, a recent Rasmussen survey has him tied for second with Fred Thompson in Iowa, with neither far behind Romney.

Watching him on the stump, it's easy to see why Huckabee is winning notice. Down to earth and likable, he's also an engaging speaker, both smart and funny. And he seems more aware than his Republican rivals that the economy isn't working for everyone.

As a man who dropped more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 2003, he incorporates an unusual pitch into his speech: Americans need more exercise and better health habits.

But beneath his folksy veneer is the rhetorical ability, and the carefully honed arguments, of a trained seminarian.

To my eye, both he and Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, have the potential to surprise in the Granite State.

Paul's appeal is that he's a different kind of Republican, one willing to break with party orthodoxy and declare the Iraq war a mistake.

Huckabee, who says we must persevere in Iraq, resists saying the same.

"Just because we didn't find them [weapons of mass destruction] doesn't mean they're not there," he said in an interview, speculating, among other things, that they might have been secreted away to Syria. (The Iraq Survey Group found no evidence of that.)

As a candidate, he's feuded with the antitax zealots at the Club for Growth over his fiscal record in Arkansas, which included higher taxes. "Governors have to govern," he tells me. "You don't get the luxury of being a pure ideologue."

So why has he signed a pledge never to raise the income tax? Because he supports a consumption tax - the so-called Fair Tax - to replace the income tax altogether, he explains. It's a big idea, and one that will come under scrutiny if his candidacy grows.

And well it may: Follow Huckabee for a morning and you quickly conclude that, lackluster fund-raising notwithstanding, his stock has been badly undervalued.

But what does he say to voters who, after suffering through George W. Bush, a president whose stubborn certitude seems rooted in part in his religious beliefs, have grown wary of religion in politics?

"I don't think they're electing me to be their pastor," he says, "but I don't think they're offended by the fact that I have deep convictions." He continues: "What I find about New Hampshire people is, what they want is authenticity. If they don't agree with me, they at least want to know that I'm going to stand flat-footed and say, OK, don't agree with me, but here I am. They like that."

Do they really? One might well respect Huckabee's sincerity, but if you are a moderate Republican or an independent who, say, favors a change of course in Iraq or abortion rights or gun control or fair treatment for gays and lesbians, Huckabee is unlikely to become your candidate.

Still, the other side of that non-equivocation equation should help him. In a field where the leading candidates have thus far proved unpalatable or unconvincing to the Republican base, Huckabee is a true believer, a committed, consistent conservative.

Now that he's outrun his second-tier rivals, don't be surprised to see his candidacy take off.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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