Sunday, December 2, 2007

Mike Huckabee: The Republican Frontrunner?

With just a month to go, Mike Huckabee has surged to the front of the pack in the Iowa GOP presidential horse race, as a new Des Moines Register poll indicates:

Mike Huckabee has leaped ahead of Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney in Iowa, seizing first place in a new Des Moines Register poll of likely Republican caucus participants.
Huckabee wins the support of 29 percent of Iowans who say they definitely or probably will attend the Republican Party's caucuses on Jan. 3. That's a gain of 17 percentage points since the last Iowa Poll was taken in early October, when Huckabee trailed both Romney and Fred Thompson.

Other poll findings indicate that the former Arkansas governor is making the most of a low-budget campaign by tapping into the support of Iowa's social conservatives.

Romney, who has invested more time and money campaigning in the state than any other GOP candidate, remains in the thick of the Iowa race with the backing of 24 percent of likely caucusgoers. But that's a drop of 5 points since October for the former Massachusetts governor.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the frontrunner in national polls, holds third place in Iowa at 13 percent, despite waging a limited campaign in the state.

Thompson, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee who waited until September to formally enter the race for the Republican nomination, has slipped to fourth place in the Iowa Poll, at 9 percent.

U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are tied for fifth place at 7 percent each. Four other candidates trail them. The new Iowa Poll, conducted over four days last week, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

The complexion of the race could easily change in the last month of intense campaigning ahead of the caucuses, which lead off the presidential nominating process. Roughly six in 10 likely Republican caucus participants say they could still be persuaded to support another candidate. Poll participant Thelma Whittaker, a retired teacher from Columbus Junction, is leaning toward supporting Huckabee in the caucuses but also could back Romney.

"I'm a very conservative Republican and I feel that (Huckabee) follows through with those ideas," said Whittaker, who is troubled by the country's moral decline. On the other hand, she wonders if Huckabee is a strong enough candidate to win the White House for the GOP.

When it comes to Romney, "I go along with a lot of his ideas,'" Whittaker said, "but he's also done some flip-flopping that scares me on issues like abortion and taxes."

Huckabee has come a long way since last May, when he languished in a tie for sixth place in the Register's poll, garnering the support of just 4 percent of likely caucus participants then.

His campaign picked up steam after he notched a surprising second-place finish in the Iowa Republican Party's straw poll in August.

The Register's new scientific poll shows Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, leading Romney 38 percent to 22 percent among those who consider themselves born-again Christians. In October, Romney edged Huckabee 23 percent to 18 percent among people in that group, which accounts for one-half of all likely caucus participants.

Similarly, Huckabee holds a 2-to-1 lead over Romney among those who say it is more important for a presidential candidate to be socially conservative than fiscally conservative.
See also the other commentaries over at Memeorandum.

This morning's Los Angeles Times has
a front-page analysis of Huckabee's political life. There's some interesting nuggets in the piece, especially the Michael Dukakis moment from Huckabee's term as Arkansas governor:

Shortly after he became governor, Huckabee expressed his support for the release of a convicted rapist -- who, once freed, sexually assaulted another woman and killed her. Wayne Dumond had been sentenced to life plus 20 years in 1984 for raping a 17-year-old cheerleader. Tucker, Huckabee's predecessor, reduced Dumond's sentence in 1992, making him eligible for parole.

In 1996, according to the Democrat-Gazette, Huckabee questioned Dumond's guilt and said he might commute his sentence to time served. He also met with the parole board in a closed session. Some board members have said Huckabee pressured them into releasing Dumond; others said he did not.

Dumond was released from prison in October 1999. He chose his next victim 11 months later.

Huckabee's Democratic opponent, Jimmie Lou Fisher, seized on the issue in the 2002 governor's race, and Dumond's first victim campaigned on Fisher's behalf. Huckabee's campaign ran ads blaming his predecessor for commuting the sentence. Fisher was considered a weak candidate; Huckabee was reelected with 53% of the vote.

In other instances, Huckabee's political instincts seemed sharper. Soon after taking office, he began to lobby strongly for a one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund state parks and conservation efforts. The measure required the approval of voters, and Huckabee, an avid outdoorsman, advertised the effort by touring the Arkansas River on his bass boat - a public relations gambit that garnered significant positive press for both the governor and the measure, which voters approved in 1996.
Anti-tax conservatives don't think Huckabee's instincts on taxes are so great:

As Huckabee's stock rises in the Republican primaries, conservatives are looking closely at his record on taxes. The Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group, has been running ads against Huckabee, harshly criticizing his record and portraying him as "Tax-Hike Mike."'

Huckabee has responded by calling the group the "Club for Greed." He says that in addition to supporting tax increases as governor, he also called for a $90.6-million cut in income taxes -- and other smaller, more narrowly targeted tax cuts. He defends his record as that of a pragmatic governor trying to meet the needs of a poor, underdeveloped state.

More recently, Huckabee has veered back toward the party line: He signed a no-tax-hike pledge that had been presented to the candidates by Americans for Tax Reform, another conservative group. Grover Norquist, its president, said Huckabee's pledge would carry more weight if he disavowed his past decisions to raise taxes.
"I am pleased he has made a commitment not to raise taxes in the future," said Norquist. "I would feel better if he spoke of his previous record as a mistake. Instead he defends it."
Huckabee's got a big bit of balancing before him. He's wrapping up the evangelical vote, but the GOP's small-government conservatives, law-and-order types, and immigration hawks are going to hammer him on his liberalism.

This is a very interesting GOP primary race, that's for sure. Be sure to see my earlier Huckabee post, "
Mike Huckabee's Coming On Strong."