Mike Huckabee was a barely known former governor of Arkansas when he attended an October house party on his behalf at the home of Jason Bedrick, New Hampshire's first Orthodox Jewish state representative.
Despite the candidate's long odds, Bedrick was brimming with confidence in an interview he gave to an Orthodox news Web site.
"No one had ever heard of the last governor from Hope, Ark., Bill Clinton, the summer before he was elected," Bedrick told Yeshiva World News. "Huckabee is polling well in all the early states. He's a long shot, but he's the best shot we've got."
Barely two months later, those words seem prophetic.
The latest poll numbers from the Des Moines Register show Huckabee surging ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the run-up to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Other surveys show him leading nationally and in several key states, including South Carolina and Florida.
"He is truly a uniter and not a divider," Bedrick recently told JTA.
"This is a guy who is very positive, very uplifting, " said Bedrick, the gabbai at the Chabad synagogue in Wellesley Hills, Mass., where he often spends the Sabbath. "This is a country that needs some healing in addition to leadership. And of all the candidates in all the parties, he is the only top-tier candidate that can provide that."
To boot, the New Hampshire lawmaker added, Huckabee is pro-Israel: He has visited the Jewish state nine times, and told the crowd at the Bedrick house party that he favored the establishment of a Palestinian state - in Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
Bedrick may see Huckabee as the perfect fit for the White House, but for many American Jews the thought of a staunchly pro-life, ordained Baptist minister as president is a major cause for alarm. Especially one like Huckabee, who has called on Americans to "take this nation back for Christ," signed a newspaper advertisement stating that wives should submit to their husbands and stated that he does not believe in evolution.
Huckabee in recent weeks has been facing increased scrutiny over his use of religion on the campaign trail, including one commercial describing the candidate as a "Christian leader" and another in which a cross hovers behind him as he wishes viewers a Merry Christmas.
At one recent campaign stop he declared, "What's wrong with our country, what is wrong with our culture, is that you can't say the name Jesus Christ without people going completely berserk."
Even as critics have sought to paint Huckabee as religiously intolerant, the former Arkansas governor and many pundits have portrayed him as the embodiment of a new breed of evangelical Christian voter, one who sees not only a religious imperative to stake out conservative positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but also in some instances to take more liberal stands on race, taxes, poverty, immigration and the environment.
He has employed populist rhetoric in slamming the establishment of his own party, challenged its general embrace of free trade and recently criticized the Bush administration's "arrogant" approach to international diplomacy.
The combination of Huckabee's rapid rise, his religiosity and his willingness to buck conservative political orthodoxy has some observers describing him as a refreshing development with the ability to transcend the bitterly partisan atmosphere in Washington.
Others see him as a threat - whether it be liberals worried about the separation of church and state, or Republicans afraid that a Huckabee victory could break up the decades-long alliance between economic and religious conservatives that has produced significant GOP victories.
Huckabee has faced tough criticism of late not only in some liberal corners, but also from several prominent conservative commentators, including George Will, Robert Novak, Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter.
Still, some observers say, American Jews -- most of whom trend toward the liberal -- will find it impossible to get past Huckabee's conservative Christian faith and rhetoric.
"The more liberal Jews find out about his core values of Christianity, the less they'll like him," journalist Zev Chafets told JTA, shortly after writing a cover story on Huckabee for The New York Times Magazine.
In the article, Chafets quoted Huckabee as asking, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?," fueling allegations that the candidate has attempted to hurt Romney by stirring up anti-Mormon sentiments among Evangelical Christian voters.
Chafets, the American-born Israeli government spokesman turned journalist, told JTA that "there's no doubt that Huckabee is a Christian conservative in the mold of Falwell or Pat Robertson, speaking politically."
"He believes in the inerrancy of the Bible," Chafetz said. "In other words, he's a fundamentalist. He believes that the Bible could not be mistaken. He's a pre-millennialist Christian. He believes in Armageddon."
In 1998, Huckabee told a Baptist convention to "take this nation back for Christ" and said that he "got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives."
That same year, his book on America's "culture of violence" lumped environmentalism with pornography and drug abuse as forces that have "fragmented and polarized our communities."
Also in '98, Huckabee signed on to an advertisement in USA Today supporting "biblical principles of marriage and family life," one of which stipulates that the "wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."
During a debate earlier this year, in answer to a question to all of the candidates, Huckabee said he did not believe in evolution. Later in the summer, at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington, he bemoaned the "holocaust of liberalized abortion," drawing criticism from the Anti-Defamation League over his use of the H word.
Some Jewish Democrats already have attempted to capitalize on potential anxiety over Huckabee's mixing of religion and politics.
During the summer, after Huckabee began to show signs of progress, the executive director of the National Jewish Democrat Council, Ira Forman, said voters "should be concerned whenever an extreme candidate gets a whiff of the presidency." The council also produced a cartoon portraying Huckabee as a caveman, in reference to the debate in which he said he did not believe in evolution.
Several observers and Jewish communal leaders from Arkansas, however, reject such efforts to paint Huckabee as a dangerous extremist, even as they stressed that they would never vote for him.
"Jews have nothing to fear from Huckabee," said Jerry Tanenbaum, a resident of Hot Springs, Ark., and a supporter of the Union for Reform Judaism. "I never found him in Arkansas to be particularly invasive with his religion on other people's rights."
Tanenbaum, who says he would never vote for Huckabee, described the GOP candidate as being "fairly temperate in the way he handles things" and said that as governor, he "tried to keep politics and religion separate to the best of his ability."
Rabbi Eugene Levy, the religious leader of Temple B'nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in Little Rock, and a big fan of President Bill Clinton, offered a similar take.
"I would never vote for him, but I'd love to have dinner with him," the rabbi said, describing Huckabee as "very open and accommodating."
That said, Levy added, Huckabee was "never more than two steps away from the pulpit in his thinking."
Huckabee boasts of winning nearly 50 percent of the black vote in his successful re-election bid in Arkansas. Others put the figure at 30 percent, still an impressive showing for a Republican.
He has received kudos from some liberal commentators for raising state taxes to improve schools and roads in Arkansas, and refusing to block the children of illegal immigrants from accessing government services.
Janine Parry, a self-described "liberal Democrat" and associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, told JTA that Huckabee's religiosity "gave me pause" when she first relocated to the state.
While Huckabee hasn't exactly won her over, Parry says he's "deeply pragmatic" and focuses on issues like education and health care that the electorate broadly cares about, not issues like abortion and gay marriage that are mostly meat for the Christian fringe.
"I don't doubt that for people of other faiths he's pretty scary on paper," Parry told JTA. "But I think he's scarier on paper than his approach to governing actually is."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement, said in a recent interview with JTA that in theory he has no problem with a man of deep religious conviction pursuing public office. But Yoffie and Rabbi David Saperstein, the head of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Washington, both expressed deep discomfort with Huckabee's comments about the Christian nature of America.
"That kind of language from a political candidate is not acceptable, from him or anybody else," Yoffie said. "We would want to be very, very clear that he had transcended that if he's going to be on the political scene."
Yoffie added that while "in principle" he didn't oppose a former clergyman running for office, "my own view is it's not a great idea."
Huckabee, whose campaign did not respond to several requests for an interview with the candidate, clearly has some work to do with Jews who see his past statements as exclusionary.
In a September interview with The Jewish Week of New York, he said that such comments should not alarm Jewish voters.
"What it means is that you wouldn't have children going hungry at night," Huckabee said. "You wouldn't have women having the daylights beat out of them by abusive, alcoholic husbands."
That kind of emphasis on the social justice imperatives of his faith might not be enough to win Huckabee support among liberal Jews. But even those who swear they could never support his candidacy nevertheless see something refreshing about a religious man who cares more about the poor than preventing gay couples from marrying.
"The real reason for Mr. Huckabee's ascendance," Frank Rich wrote recently in The New York Times, "may be that his message is simply more uplifting - and, in the ethical rather than theological sense, more Christian - than that of rivals whose main calling cards of fear, torture and nativism have become more strident with every debate. The fresh-faced politics of joy may be trumping the five-o'clock-shadow of Nixonian gloom and paranoia favored by the entire GOP field with the sometime exception of John McCain."
In fact, some of the harshest criticisms of Huckabee have come not from liberals worried over the separation of church and state, but conservatives upset over his record as governor, especially on taxes and immigration.
Huckabee was slammed, too, for his lack of foreign policy expertise after he told reporters earlier this month that he had not read a declassified intelligence report on Iran's nuclear program, even though it had been a major national news story.
He opposes withdrawing from Iraq before the country is stable and generally supports a hard line on fighting Islamic extremism. But in a recent article that he wrote for Foreign Affairs, Huckabee said the Bush administration suffers from an "arrogant bunker mentality." He also hinted at a softer approach to Iran that includes aggressive diplomacy and incentives for better behavior.
Despite being a fairly unknown quantity in the Jewish community, Huckabee opted not to attend a presidential forum in October organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition, citing scheduling conflicts. At the time, an analysis of campaign finance records conducted by JTA discovered that Huckabee had not received a single donation from an RJC board member.
The executive director of the RJC, Matt Brooks, issued a Dec. 17 statement saying that candidates should be "mindful of not imposing their religious beliefs on others" and that "questions involving theology have no place on the campaign trail."
While the RJC statement did not mention any specific candidate or party, some conservatives have joined the chorus of those who view Huckabee's "Christian leader" ad as a subtle swipe at Romney's Mormon faith.
"Forget the implications of the idea that being a 'Christian leader' is some special qualification for the presidency," Krauthammer, a Jewish columnist much admired in conservative circles, wrote in a recent piece for the Washington Post.
Had Huckabee run such an ad against U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Krauthammer said, "it would have raised an outcry. The subtext - who's the Christian in this race? - would have been too obvious to ignore, the appeal to bigotry too clear."
For Huckabee supporters like Bedrick, however, such comments are not a cause for fear but for celebration. It was in secular Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that Jews fared the worst, Bedrick noted, while Christian America has historically been the most welcoming place for Jews.
"As a Jew, frankly, I do feel quite comfortable living in an America that is a Christian nation, or I should say, a country that is primarily Christian," Bedrick said.
"In between the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, there's a lot of room for people to have their faith and express it publicly. And I have no problem with that."
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