CONCORD, N.H. - The former governor of Arkansas is finishing a long day on the campaign trail, replete with tales of the South and a session playing with a high school rock band. Now, in a familiar drawl, he says, "Hillary is going to be in here in a minute, so I pretty well got to clear out."
But this is not President Clinton. It is Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who is just giddy enough after soaring in some polls to pull a dead-on impression of his predecessor in the governor's office in Little Rock - and whom he now hopes to follow to the White House.
Throughout a recent Huckabee campaign swing in New Hampshire, the stylistic parallels to Bill Clinton are everywhere, from the Sunday morning cadence, to the look in the eye, to the arm around the shoulder.
For months, candidates with "unlimited resources looked down their collective noses at us," Huckabee said in an interview. Pundits were writing his political obituary "without even writing my birth announcement." Now, Huckabee is at the tipping point that could determine his campaign's fate. He could crash-land if voters become disenchanted as they learn more about his Arkansas record, and his rivals and the national media scrutinize his past writings and views. Or he could keep building his sudden momentum and fill what some feel is a credibility gap among the field of Republican presidential hopefuls.
Yet less than a month before the first ballots are cast, Huckabee's views on many issues are still largely unknown even among many of those who say they plan to back him. In Iowa, he has rapidly climbed to the top of the polls due in large part to his focus on his Southern Baptist faith, which he emphasizes in television commercials that call him a "Christian leader." But in the more secular state of New Hampshire, Huckabee appeared at five straight campaign events without bringing up the subject of his faith or his 12 years as a pastor, leaving it to questioners to raise the matter.
The parallels with Bill Clinton go beyond their shared birthplace of Hope, Ark., their penchant to break out a musical instrument on the campaign trail, and even their past employment of political strategist Dick Morris. Just as Clinton won election by casting himself as a moderate "New Democrat," Huckabee is running as a sort of New Republican, a self-described conservative who has a history of proposals that some in his home state considered moderate or even liberal. Those measures included a tax hike to fund a conservation program and an effort to let children of illegal immigrants apply for taxpayer-funded scholarships.
Huckabee's rise in the polls is partly attributable to his style - a mix of self-deprecation, velvety voice, and sharp wit - honed during years of appearances on radio and television and in the pulpit. He aired a humorous commercial suggesting he would deal with illegal immigration by enlisting tough-guy actor Chuck Norris. When he was asked during a recent debate whether Jesus Christ would have shared his support for the death penalty, Huckabee batted the question away by saying, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office."
But Huckabee's humor may only take him so far, and his hybrid political philosophy, which some have likened to Bill Clinton's "triangulation" between the left and the right, is fraught with political peril for a presidential candidate suddenly in the spotlight. While Huckabee has benefited from support from Christian conservatives, who agree with his stance against abortion and gay marriage, his Republican opponents are seeking to emphasize his more liberal leanings, including his views on criminal sentencing and immigration. Many of his positions, spelled out in writings over the last two decades, are just becoming known to the national electorate.
Huckabee sometimes seems to be running against his own party's hierarchy, saying he is well aware that he is not the choice of the Republican Party or the Wall Street power structure. Sounding like the populist preacher from the Ozarks, where he got his start, he insists his power comes from the people. Until recently, he said, his standing was so low in the polls that there was "no reason" for voters to believe in his candidacy. Now, he says after campaigning across New Hampshire, "it is one of those moments of fulfillment."
The scene at the high school gym in Tilton, N.H., is pure Huckabee. The 52-year-old Arkansan, dressed in a dark blue business suit, fingers his bass guitar as the high school bandmates kick into "Sweet Home Alabama." After playing that Southern rock anthem, also a standard for his own band, called Capital Offense, Huckabee ambles to the microphone and tells the story of a woman who was thought to have a learning disability but became a famous choreographer. The point is that individuals shouldn't be categorized and dismissed.
It was aimed at motivating high schoolers, but it seemed like Huckabee was telling his own tale.
Huckabee's father, Dorsey, was a fireman, and his mother, Mae, was a secretary. They lived modestly in what Huckabee has described as being pennies above poverty, a generation removed from dirt floors and outdoor toilets. This may explain why Huckabee, speaking at a supporter's home in Bedford, N.H., sounded sour about those who dismissed him over the years.
Adopting a farcical elitist accent, Huckabee said no one ever asked him: "Oh, you're a Huckabee, are you of the Huckabees of Winchester?"
But Huckabee said he always believed he could escape Hope's poverty. He was elected president of his high school class, married his high school sweetheart, Janet McCain, with whom he has three children, and focused on his Southern Baptist faith. He was ordained at 18, began preaching, and received degrees from two Baptist colleges.
Huckabee was hired in the late 1970s as the communications aide to the famed Texas television evangelist, James Robison, who regularly held crusades across the country that reached hundreds of thousands of people. "I could tell he had a lot of skill," Robison said of Huckabee. "He enjoyed traveling with me and listening to me speak."
In 1980, Robison asked Huckabee to arrange a meeting between evangelical leaders and Ronald Reagan, who was seeking the presidency. It was at this meeting in Texas that Reagan said, "I know you can't endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you." Many evangelical leaders say the meeting marked a seminal moment in the formation of a Republican-Christian conservative alliance. Huckabee was at the center of that strategy, which he now is employing in his campaign.
"It was time when I realized that a lot of people, evangelicals, had sort of been pushed aside, had been considered as almost disenfranchised citizens," Huckabee said. "They were to go to church, pay their taxes, and shut up and just be happy with what was going on, even if it violated everything they truly believed in."
Huckabee returned to Arkansas in 1980 at the age of 25, intent on "being in full-time evangelism-communication," he told a Baptist publication at the time. Baptists in Pine Bluff, about two hours east of Hope, asked him to revive their shrinking Immanuel Church. Huckabee seized the opportunity to use the church as the unlikely base of a new television ministry. The television effort proved so successful that Huckabee was courted by a larger church in Texarkana, Ark. Huckabee "was not interested unless they were willing to conduct a television ministry," according to a Arkansas Baptist News article published at the time. The church agreed and Huckabee's fame spread across the state.
By 1989, with Bill Clinton serving as governor of Arkansas, Huckabee was elected president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, representing 500,000 church members in a state with about 2.6 million residents. Huckabee urged the Baptists not to listen to factions, and he was particularly dismissive of liberals within the church. "If all the 'liberals' in Arkansas Baptist churches held a meeting, they could meet in the corner booth of a Waffle House and still have room for guests," he wrote in the Arkansas Baptist magazine.
The high profile of his Baptist post led Huckabee to leap into a race for the US Senate in 1992. He lost by a wide margin despite spending what he called "our last dime" to finance the campaign.
Comments he made in that race and in his many other statements over two decades in the public eye are certain to be reexamined closely now that he is a serious presidential contender. The Associated Press reported yesterday that Huckabee filled out a questionnaire during the Senate campaign in which he suggested isolating AIDS patients from the general public, opposed an increase in federal AIDS funding, and said homosexuality could "pose a dangerous public health risk." Huckabee said on the campaign trail last week that he favors an increase in AIDS spending but doesn't want to shortchange other diseases.
With a mortgage, a family of five, and no job after that defeat, Huckabee turned to an unlikely savior: Dick Morris, the political consultant from New York who had helped elect Bill Clinton as governor. Morris, who had fashioned Clinton as the moderate New Democrat, now positioned Huckabee in the same political middle ground, only on the Republican side. This time, running as a commoner from Hope, just as Clinton had done in seeking the presidency, Huckabee was elected lieutenant governor in 1993. He assumed the governor's office in 1996 when the sitting Democrat governor, Jim Guy Tucker, was convicted on financial charges. Huckabee later was elected in his own right, and he served for 10 1/2 years, until January 2007. To this day, Huckabee speaks highly of Morris, notwithstanding the consultant's widely publicized affair with a prostitute at a hotel near the White House during the Clinton presidency.
"Mike was a Republican governor uniquely elected in a Democratic state following the Clinton powerhouse that had occurred there," said Huckabee's longtime friend and fellow Baptist preacher, Ronnie Floyd. "You got to be able to work across the aisle with people. He has that ability."
Huckabee's governorship was tumultuous. He warred with an overwhelmingly Democrat-controlled legislature, and also with Republicans on his right. Nonetheless, he pushed through an array of conservative measures, including a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions and antiabortion legislation.
At the same time, Huckabee backed numerous tax increases, including a one-eighth of a percent sales tax hike to pay for conservation land he calls one of his proudest accomplishments; a 3-cent gas tax increase to pay for road construction; and a $400 million tax hike to pay for court-ordered improvements in school districts. "In the state system you can't borrow, you can't print money," Huckabee said in the interview.
Indeed, taxes are a defining issue of Huckabee's campaign. He has proposed replacing the income tax with a national sales tax that he said would be more fair and would increase productivity. But some independent political analysts say Huckabee's "Fair Tax" proposal has no chance for passage, thus undercutting the heart of his domestic agenda.
Huckabee also has promoted a moral agenda. He fervently opposed a state-run lottery on grounds that it was wrong for the state to promote gambling, even though the funds from such a program might have negated the need for tax hikes. While he once criticized "environmental wackos" for trying to protect a wildlife habitat, he says that his religious study has convinced him to be "unapologetically a conservationist." He has written that Al Gore "wasn't entirely wrong when he spoke of earth 'in the balance.' "
Huckabee's simultaneous personas as politician, pitchman, and motivational author are evident in his six books. One volume is about his weight loss program, under which he lost 110 pounds. Another book is titled "Character Makes a Difference." The most recent book is a campaign manifesto called "From Hope to Higher Ground," filled with Huckabeean bromides. He urges readers to "stop being cynical," to "read the bible more, blogs less," to "watch TV Land and Nick@Nite more; network TV less," to "always say thank you," to "avoid reality TV shows," and, of course, "Run for office!"
If the books are heavy on happy talk, they also provide statements that until now have received little notice but which could define him during the campaign. In a book written shortly before the collapse of President Bush's proposal for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants amid complaints that it provided amnesty, Huckabee backed a similar idea.
"What does make sense is a revision of our laws, one giving those here illegally a process through which they pay a reasonable fine in admission of their guilt for the past infraction of violating our border and agree to strictly adhere to a pathway toward legal status and citizenship," Huckabee wrote in "From Hope to Higher Ground."
During his recent campaign swing, however, Huckabee didn't focus on the pathway to citizenship. Instead, he emphasized his call for securing the nation's borders, denied that he was advocating "amnesty," and stood by his 2005 proposal in Arkansas to allow children of illegal immigrants to apply for academic scholarships.
He wrote in his latest book that some of the most outspoken critics of illegal immigrants are driven by a "passion sparked by the unholy flames of racism."
Huckabee has little background in foreign policy, which Republican Party voters say is a top priority.
Huckabee has been vague about his view of the Iraq war, writing that "there are certainly those who complain that the establishment of a stable government and democracy is taking longer than expected" - without saying whether he thinks the complaint is valid.
When he was asked last week in Iowa by reporters about a National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran was not actively seeking to construct a nuclear weapon, he was unfamiliar with the widely publicized finding of the nation's top intelligence agencies, which had been front-page news.
Just as Clinton was hounded by critics about the intricacies of his dealings in Arkansas, Huckabee is being dogged by accusations that he misused his power as governor for personal gain.
He has been criticized for failing to disclose the source of gifts and speaking fees from private interests.
Some of Huckabee's Republican rivals also have charged that Huckabee is soft on crime, noting that he supported parole for convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who was freed and subsequently accused of killing a Missouri woman. Huckabee has acknowledged "I supported the parole" but said the decision to free Dumond was made by others.
Huckabee sometimes has bristled at questions about whether he would use the presidency to impose his religious views. But even some of Huckabee's longtime friends say he invited such questions by running an ad that promotes him as a Christian leader.
"If a candidate makes his faith a part of his campaign, it is fair game," said Richard Land, who has known Huckabee for 28 years and is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Michael Kranish can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org