mike huckabee thinks so...
Low-Key Huckabee on the Rise
By Carl Leubsdorf
Longtime Bush adviser Dan Bartlett, candidly assessing the Republican field, calls Mike Huckabee the "best candidate" but questions whether Americans would elect another president from Hope, Ark., especially one named "Huckabee."
Mr. Huckabee certainly lags in fundraising and national polls, but quietly, even unexpectedly, the genial former Arkansas governor may be turning the GOP's Big Four into a Big Five. He scored a triumph last weekend at the "Values Voters Summit" and got good marks from Sunday's Fox News Channel debate.
And in the key kickoff state of Iowa, there are signs of a showing that could transform the race.
The reason: In a field in which some of the best-known candidates are turning verbal cartwheels to portray themselves as more conservative than their rivals or their records, Mr. Huckabee is the real article. As he put it on Fox News Sunday, he's a "consistent conservative with some authenticity about those convictions."
By contrast, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has turned himself from an abortion-rights backer favoring an expanded GOP role for gays and lesbians into a sharp foe of abortion rights and gay marriage.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani supports abortion rights and gun control but says he would nominate the kind of Supreme Court justices who would overturn those abortion rights.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, running as a consistent conservative, once lobbied for an abortion-rights group, opposed some tort reforms and rejected a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona has a consistent voting record on conservative issues from abortion rights to federal spending. But he lost conservative support by denouncing the influence of such religious conservative leaders as the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Mr. McCain also opposed the 2001 Bush tax cuts and championed campaign finance and immigration reform.
Mr. Huckabee, too, has attracted conservative criticism. The Club for Growth cited tax increases during his governorship, while the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins questioned his commitment to fighting "radical Islam."
Still, better than half of the more than 950 voters at Mr. Perkins' "Values Voters Summit" favored Mr. Huckabee, five times as many as backed Mr. Romney. The result was muddled by a second count, including online voters, in which Mr. Romney edged Mr. Huckabee.
His weekend success was the clearest sign to date that the ordained Southern Baptist minister is making progress in becoming the favored candidate of religious conservatives, who play such a vital role in GOP politics.
The first sign was his second-place showing in August at the Iowa straw poll.
Another was Friday's withdrawal of a conservative rival, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
And Mr. Huckabee's progress was underscored by his rise in the polls in Iowa, where religious conservatives may make up far more than half the turnout for the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Recent Iowa polls show his support in double digits. Two recent surveys put him just one point out of second, although still well behind Mr. Romney. But support for all candidates in Iowa is fluid.
One explanation for his gains is that he is running a more positive campaign than Mr. Romney or Mr. Giuliani. Displaying a kind of low-key charm, Mr. Huckabee has concentrated on his own views, rather than assailing Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
That was especially evident Sunday night. When a panelist finally put a first question to him after Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Thompson, Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain had spent 20 minutes wrangling with one another, Mr. Huckabee replied, "I'm kind of glad I wasn't in on the first few minutes because it was all about these guys fighting each other."
His tone has been consistently less confrontational. In earlier debates, he urged compromise between President Bush and Congress on funding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, backed a conditional path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and urged greater stress on diplomacy with Iran and Syria to end the war in Iraq.
Even if he finishes second - or even first - in Iowa, Mr. Huckabee still will face difficulty raising enough money to compete with better-funded rivals in the big industrial states. But the positive impression he is making is propelling him into consideration, and, if he falls short, could make him an attractive running mate for Mr. Giuliani or Mr. Romney.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.