The Iowa caucus victory for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee must must be credited to his strong support among evangelical Christians. To keep winning in the long race to the White House he needs to quickly raise lots of money, build a robust staff and remold his message for a much larger cross section of voters. Is the former Arkansas governor up to the task?
“Tonight we proved that American politics is still in the hands of ordinary folks like you,” Huckabee, a Baptist minister, told supporters at his Iowa victory celebration. The Iowa Republican caucus was well suited for Huckabee, who ran on a platform that combined economic populism with an appeal to Christian conservatives. It provided a friendly start for a Christian candidate with strong mid-America values. Evangelicals got behind his candidacy because he is one of them. According to entrance polls, sixty percent of Iowa caucus goers described themselves as evangelicals.
Beginning today, however, Huckabee’s religious conservatism will help far less in socially moderate New Hampshire where opponents Mitt Romney and John McCain will likely make a stronger showing. Granite State voters tend to be more concerned with lowering taxes and reducing the size of government than they are with the social issues that propelled Huckabee to victory in Iowa.
Bob Wicker, a Huckabee strategist, is wary of New Hampshire. “It’s all no tax, no government there,” he explained. Thus the campaign will likely focus most of its effort on the South Carolina primary January 19, where a strong religious community could help Huckabee repeat the Iowa victory.
What gives Huckabee supporters long-term hope is that he has a penchant for retail politics. "The thing you can say about Mike Huckabee is that he has a very different coalition," said Charlie Arlinghaus, a longtime New Hampshire GOP strategist. "Huckabee crosses a lot of lines,” according to Arlinghaus. “That’s why he was underestimated."
After spending nine months near the bottom of the pack, Huckabee surged to become the front-runner in Iowa in December surprising many because he operated with a slim staff and reportedly spent less than $1.4 million in Iowa compared to opponent Romney who spent more than $7 million. At Huckabee’s victory celebration he boasted, “We’ve learned that people really are more important than the purse.”
The campaign was run primarily with volunteers. Huckabee wrote his own speeches and acted as the campaign financial chair while his 25-year-old daughter, Sarah served as his field director.
Huckabee’s personality is well-suited for campaigning. He’s affable, quick on his feet, and disarmingly honest. Events in the closing week of the campaign, however, were widely thought to have shown that his efforts were fraying.
On Sunday before the caucus, Huckabee pulled a negative television ad regarding Romney explaining to reporters “It’s a huge gamble on my part and we’ll see how it works out.” His honesty worked this time but the coming primaries will require more campaign sophistication and a much deeper staff to minimize such gaffs.
Part of Hunkabee’s attractiveness in Iowa was the fact that he wears his Christianity well. He has a strong commitment to his faith and a candor that some Iowans said is rare among politicians. The faithful saw him as one of their own and turned out to support him. They not only liked his character but his position on the issues resonated with theirs.
Huckabee’s supporters said abortion and broader moral issues were their top concerns, while other GOP supporters were driven by the immigration, war in Iraq, terrorism and national security issues.
His social conservatism on issues like same-sex marriage, gay adoption, hate crimes legislation, and school prayer won’t play as well in less conservative states. Some of these issues may put him at risk in places — such as New Hampshire — where those issues are subordinated to others such as national security concerns. He must emphasize other ideas in the coming primaries.
His immigration views tend to parallel conservative thinking but his record as governor for supporting higher education benefits for children of illegal immigrants and his opposition to a federal roundup of illegals will continue to plague him. He needs to do more than promise to build a fence along the US border, end amnesty and oppose sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants.
Economic conservatives bristle at Huckabee’s anti-business message of economic populism although he has signed a pledge not to raise taxes as president. In Arkansas, however, he supported several increases, including taxes on gas, nursing homes and sales. His best bet for wooing economic conservatives might be to better develop his “Fair Tax” proposal.
This proposal would eliminate the Internal Revenue Service and income tax and levy a national sales tax instead. He believes these changes would encourage people who want to start small businesses and keep large companies from shifting jobs overseas. “It would be a system that transforms the way our economy functions,” Huckabee explained.
For conservatives, his record on pardoning or reducing 1,033 prison sentences to include the case of Wayne Dumond, an incarcerated rapist who was paroled and subsequently killed a woman in Missouri, will continue to haunt Huckabee. The former governor defends those decisions arguing that many of the people whose sentences he reduced deserved second chances. He also claims that he’s the only man in the race who has actually signed another human being’s death warrant.
A step to placate conservatives concerned about judicial activism would be for him to remove any doubt about the type of people he would appoint as judges. He might promise, “I will appoint people who are strict constitutional constructionists in the tradition of Justice Antonin Scalia.”
His lack of foreign policy experience has been a concern for supporters of President Bush’s national security policies. In a recent edition of the magazine Foreign Policy, Huckabee promised to never surrender American sovereignty, to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, to support Islamic moderates, to grow our active military, to stay in Iraq until conditions on the ground permit a change, to contain Iran, to move forward with missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic and to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran. His list of positions virtually matches those embraced by the Bush administration which may do little to convince Americans who disagree with the President that a Huckabee administration will be better.
Huckabee casts himself as a fresh voice for change in Washington. “If we win this vote, we will make political history like it’s never been made in Iowa or America,” Huckabee told a crowd at one of his final rallies. Fresh, yes, but it also must be clear on substantive issues.
Mike Huckabee may well be up to the task. His prospects depend on how quickly he can build an organization and mold his message to appeal to a broader constituency. As Ronald Reagan did in 1980, he must keep his Christian base but bring into the fold economic conservatives and some disenfranchised Democrats.