Huckabee most hopeful of Iowa candidates

Overtakes Romney in recent polls, though pre-caucus surveys in this state are famously unreliable.

Huckabee guitar 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Huckabee guitar 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Candidates on Wednesday scrambled to convince undecided Iowa voters to back them ahead of the first vote to determine who will top the presidential tickets. Though campaign ads flooded the airwaves and newspapers, the candidates competing in Thursday's caucus engaged in the more traditional method of appealing for votes - visiting schools, community centers and residences across this rural Midwestern state. No one has been taking better advantage of these personal interactions more than Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister whose shoe-string budget campaign has been surging in recent weeks. He has made himself competitive with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, even overtaking him in recent polls of potential Iowa voters, though pre-caucus surveys are famously unreliable. Huckabee's rise is a testament to the open nature of the presidential race, which sees neck-and-neck races among both Republicans and Democrats. Huckabee and Romney are tangling on the GOP side, with former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani all trailing significantly - though Giuliani, strong in national polls, hasn't campaigned in Iowa. Meanwhile, early Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York has seen her lead disintegrate into a tie with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards. But Huckabee, lacking the leading Democrats' name recognition and the campaign organization - and funding - of all the other top-tier competitors, would potentially gain the most from an Iowa win. Huckabee, who combines right-wing stances on social issues on abortion and gay rights with economic policies to help the middle class, has used his folksy charm and Christian credentials to appeal to the middle class farmers and devout retirees of Iowa. "He's wonderful one-on-one. He's very good in a crowd and he can make himself sound like the second coming of Ronald Reagan," said Wade Parsons, a producer at an Iowa TV station, explaining Huckabee's rise among a population that identifies with him. "Anyone that knows how to get a church congregation to stay awake... is not going to have too tough a time setting out their ideas on taxes." Huckabee's rising numbers in Iowa have attracted the negative attention of Romney and other competitors, who have started to hammer him on his immigration and tax policies as well as missteps on foreign policy. Without any foreign policy credentials, he has been criticized for gaffes that are interpreted as a lack of experience and perspective on international affairs. He initially said he was unfamiliar with the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran after it came out and then was mocked for suggesting the US border needed to be more closely monitored for Pakistani infiltrations following the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Huckabee has criticized the Bush administration for an "arrogant bunker mentality" that has been "counterproductive at home and abroad" and suggested a more nuanced approach in the Muslim world to "calibrate a course between maintaining stability and promoting democracy," he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. Yet he has also been very critical of Saudi Arabia and Egypt; on Iran he has called for containment, refusing to rule out the military option. "We cannot live with al-Qaida, but we might be able to live with a contained Iran. Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons on my watch," he wrote. "But before I look parents in the eye to explain why I put their son's or daughter's life at risk, I want to do everything possible to avoid conflict. We have substantive issues to discuss with Teheran. Recent direct negotiations about Iraq have not been productive because they have not explored the full range of issues." He has also been staunchly supportive of Israel, writing in Foreign Affairs that, "I will not waver in standing by our ally Israel." It is a country he has visited several times, leading groups there as well as taking his family. Huckabee has drawn on his experience in the Holy Land in making his pitch to voters, which has especially resonated with evangelicals. When he spoke to thousands of Republican boosters at the Iowa straw poll this summer, he recalled his trip to Yad Vashem and the tragedy Jews experienced during the Holocaust to call them to action. Huckabee's son David told The Jerusalem Post that he remembers the trip well and the impact it had on his family. "I'll never forget the bus ride home. The bus at any other time on the trip, there was laughing and joking. At the bus on the ride home, not a word was said," he said of the visit to Yad Vashem. "It helped him in his parenting role for us in how to treat people equally and not judge them on color and religion. It absolutely has a role in the way we were raised and treats people and teaches us to treat people and leads people." Christianity, of course, was a key part of the Huckabee home, and it was the ties to Christianity which fostered much of Huckabee's interest in Israel. "We're a Christian family and he had taken trips there several times," his son said. That Christian background has helped Huckabee appeal to Republican voters in Iowa, who have been divided in their support and soft in their backing of Romney even when he has topped polls. One young caucus-goer, who gave her first name as Melissa, said she liked Huckabee because of his "Christian values," while she distrusted Romney. But while his faith has won Huckabee support in Iowa, it has also worried some moderate Republicans who fear he could be a divisive choice and raised the ire of others who want to see a strong separation of church and state. The Anti-Defamation League, which criticized Huckabee for using the term "holocaust of liberalized abortion," sent a letter to all candidates calling on them to keep in mind that "there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate." His religious zeal raises questions about his viability in the long term, as it could be used by the Democrats to paint him as extreme should he win, said one long-time Republican operative who isn't affiliated with any candidate. Even if Huckabee wins or comes close to winning Iowa, though, it would be a tough road for him to get the nomination with his small amount of cash and campaign resources, though it would give him media attention and a leg up in the next vote, to take place in New Hampshire next week. "He would be a step closer to the nomination if he does well in Iowa," the operative said, "because it would give Republicans a reason to write him checks." And all the campaigns will need to invest heavily to have a shot as the race spreads across the country after they come out of the Iowa starting gate.