/ 11 November 2007

Southern preacher could be saviour of Republicans

He is a former governor of Arkansas from a town called Hope. He has a nice line in campaign humour and speaks like a Deep South preacher. He is also running for president.

But this is not Bill Clinton of 1992. This is Mike Huckabee, a long-shot Republican contender for the 2008 White House who has burst into the leading pack of the race for his party’s nomination.

From barely appearing in the polls a few months ago, Huckabee has surged forward in recent weeks. Some surveys have placed him second in the key state of Iowa, ahead of better-known candidates including Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson.

This has led to a flurry of positive press around Huckabee’s campaign, including a profile in Newsweek and glowing praise from top political columnists. ”Mike Huckabee is on a roll,” said Dick Morris, a conservative commentator in the political newspaper the Hill. ”Huckabee could surprise everybody before the votes are counted.”

There is little doubt that Huckabee has forced his way into the top tier of Republican candidates. He has done it by representing the most socially conservative wing of the party. A former Baptist minister who used to have his sermons broadcast over his own Christian radio and TV station, he is firmly anti-abortion, regards the Bible as literal truth and does not believe in evolution.

Such hard-line views are endearing him to the powerful evangelical wing of the Republican party, dismayed by the liberal social views of the national front-runner, former New York mayor Giuliani.

”Huckabee is the ticking time bomb of the party,” said Professor Cary Covington, a politics expert at the University of Iowa. ”Religious voters are soon going to realise that he is the candidate who best fits their profile and get behind him.”

Huckabee’s support has rocketed in Iowa, where evangelical Christians play a significant role. In one recent poll he was at 19%, just eight points behind the leader, Mitt Romney, and three ahead of Giuliani. He also finished a strong second in Iowa’s Ames Straw Poll, a summer gathering that traditionally whittles down the Republican field as activists indicate support for their favoured candidates.

Yet even a third-place finish in January’s Iowa caucuses would boost Huckabee’s campaign, propelling him into the next contest in New Hampshire as a genuine contender. However, his success so far has been built on classic shoestring campaigning. His low-budget but hardworking effort has poured all its energy into Iowa with dozens of campaign stops.

Huckabee’s delivery is far from that of the typical member of the party’s religious faction. He is famed for his jovial persona and has been a surprise hit guest on liberal-inclined talk programmes such as The Daily Show.

He also has an unconventional political style at odds with the dour image of many conservatives. Huckabee plays bass guitar in his own rock band, called Capitol Offense, whose motto is ”The hardest-working band in politics”. The band have opened at concerts for stars such as Willie Nelson and Percy Sledge, and YouTube videos of Huckabee blasting out a version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd hit Free Bird have been plastered all over the internet.

”People on the religious right often have a harsh image,” said Covington. ”Huckabee shares their values, but is positive and optimistic. He softens them.”

His time as governor of Arkansas was far from conventional. When he took office he was clinically obese and doctors warned him he could develop diabetes and die within a decade. He then embraced a healthy diet and exercise and Arkansas voters saw their governor lose a staggering eight stone.

Huckabee’s success represents the deeply fractured nature of the Republican race as the US braces for the Iowa caucuses in the first week of January. While the Democratic field has coalesced around Hillary Clinton as the clear front-runner, the Republican race is still wide open. That has allowed Huckabee to rise from obscurity to genuine challenger. A good result in Iowa could even win him the ultimate prize, much as it did Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The near misses

  • In 1992, Senator Tom Harkin easily won the Iowa caucuses. However, Bill Clinton’s third-place finish earned the headlines, then the nomination and finally the presidency.

  • In 1972, Democrat Edmund Muskie won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary — but lost the nomination race to anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern.

  • In 1980, George Bush Snr won the Iowa caucus, defeating Ronald Reagan. But by the end of the campaign, Bush was Reagan’s running mate.

  • In July 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis had a 19-point lead over Republican George Bush. But it was Bush who entered the White House.

  • In the 2004 race, Howard Dean spent months as the Democrat frontrunner. But when the voting began in Iowa, his campaign collapsed to the status of also-ran almost overnight, with John Kerry going on to win the nomination.
  • — Guardian Unlimited Â