Leader Blues

Monday, January 07, 2008

EDITORIAL >> Huckabee can rejoice

Whatever happens hereafter to his campaign for president, Mike Huckabee must forever be accorded recognition for having pulled one of the most improbable political upsets in a century. Yes, as the pundits will be observing, nearly all his votes in the Iowa Republican caucuses Thursday night were those of self-professed religious conservatives, who are not a preponderance of even Republican voters in this country. And, yes, his votes accounted for only 10 percent of those cast for president in the first state to hold its nominating contest. Nearly twice as many Iowans went to the precincts to vote for each of the three leading Democratic candidates than the 39,000 who braved the cold to queue up for Huckabee.

But all those truths only barely diminish the significance of what he did. He was perhaps the least known of the huge field of Republican candidates at the first of the year, and so far-fetched was his candidacy that he was unable to raise enough money for even a competitive race for the U. S. Senate in this little state, much less a national campaign. True, while the other candidates spread themselves across the country, he threw everything into the Iowa strategy, spending 57 days and most of his money campaigning there, but it was still nothing compared with the effort of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who was supposed to run away with Iowa.

Iowa may prove to be the pinnacle of the Huckabee campaign, but he has nevertheless changed the dynamics of the presidential race, and not merely in the Republican sweepstakes. Romney, whose vast fortune, chiseled good looks and résumé had made him one of the two frontrunners, now seems mortally handicapped. Mike Huckabee received only 34 percent of the votes in the Republican caucuses but it was enough to turn Romney’s ruddy face pallid, or so it seemed on television. It is hard to see how he can recover. He needs a decisive victory Tuesday in next-door New Hampshire to remain viable, and New Englanders now know that he was pasted by a cash-strapped wisecracking Baptist preacher from Arkansas.
They all moved yesterday to New Hampshire, which traditionally has a bigger impact on the nominations in both parties than does Iowa. Huckabee will not be close to the top there, but he will poll better than he was expected to do. His overbearing religiosity — he claims that God ordained his ascendance — will not go over as well in that fiercely libertarian state, but he needs only to meet his low expectations, not to win. He will have another chance to demonstrate his bona fides the next week in friendly South Carolina, where he will duke it out with the moribund Fred Thompson.

Even the right-leaning commentators tended to dismiss Huckabee as a one-state phenomenon because of the unrepresentative evangelical vote in that state, but they underestimate him and the nature of his appeal. It may speak badly of the rest of the field, but he is the glibbest and, at a surface level, the most likeable of the Republicans. No one can be sure what Mike Huckabee really stands for — he has been at some point or another in the past 10 years on different sides of just about every issue — but humor and easy grace will carry a politician a long way once people think they know him. Huckabee had a full year to define himself without much interference.

The peril for Mike Huckabee remains what it has been from the first, his inveterate inclination to fudge the truth or to lie outright, even when the truth would serve him well, and to make up facts and policy on the spot when he has neither. Candidates to be the leader of the free world must not be seen to be so rash. That weakness has been on display since the opening salvos of his campaign, when he fabricated much of his fiscal record in Arkansas, and then when he issued numerous statements that misled people on what he had done to free the rapist and murderer Wayne DuMond.

Now that he is a major candidate, his words are being vetted and he has suffered a series of embarrassments. Last weekend, there he was again explaining to Tim Russert on NBC how he was blindsided by a question about the Bush administration’s intelligence report that said Iran had abandoned its nuclear-weapons program four years ago. He sounded stupid that night, Huckabee explained, because the report had been released publicly only four hours before he was asked about it, and there had not been time to learn of it. Russert did not remind him that the intelligence estimate became world news on a Monday morning and the question about it was put to Huckabee on Tuesday night, which does not compute to four hours.

None of his serial missteps the past three weeks cost him dearly, yet, but if they continue at this pace their summative effects will take a toll. Truth is a discipline that can be acquired even at this late date. His trusted advisers, whoever they are, need to impress upon him that the game has changed and that he must make candor and truth his hallmark.

If the caucuses were propulsion for our favorite son, they were something different for Arkansas’ favorite daughter, the former first lady, Sen. Hillary Clinton. She finished in a virtual tie for second in the Democratic causes, well behind the rising star Sen. Barack Obama. The inevitability of her nomination vanished on the frozen Iowa prairie and the sense of it, her strength, may not be recoverable.

We will see both her and Huckabee now on Feb. 5, in the massive telltale primaries in Arkansas and coast to coast. One, Sen. Clinton, will have money and the other still probably not much. One may still be enjoying the magic of exceeded expectations and the other fighting to recover the magic of high expectations. It will be the decisive test of character for each.