Election 2008

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The Primary Contenders: Mike Huckabee

January 14, 2008
by findingDulcinea Staff
Michael Dale Huckabee was initially regarded as an unlikely contender for the presidential nomination. But his victory at the Iowa caucuses has made him one of the GOP’s leading candidates. Today we take a look at this wisecracking former Arkansas governor as he attempts to ride his newfound popularity through the primaries.

The Young Huck

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Born and raised in Hope, Arkansas, Huckabee is the son of a firefighter who never finished high school, and a mother whom Zef Chafets of the New York Times calls “one generation removed from dirt floors and outhouses.”

Huckabee attended the same kindergarten as Bill Clinton, and remembers himself as a “timid little guy … I used humor as a defense; I became the class clown. But deep inside I felt real vulnerable.”

Huckabee honed this defense mechanism, becoming a skilled public speaker and debater. “At 14,” writes Chafets, “he was hired as an announcer for the local radio station. Huckabee grew up on stages and in studios.”

In 2007, he deftly parlayed these podium skills into a campaign trail image of down-home affability that Josh Gerstein of the New York Sun calls “Clintonesque.”

Huckabee’s Humor

The 55-year-old Huckabee owes much of his success to a spate of well-placed jokes that have distinguished him as the Republicans’ boss of bon mots.

“Huckabee doesn't bemoan the baby boomers' retirement in actuarial terms the way other candidates do,” writes Washington Post writer Dana Milbank. “He says: ‘If you think that Medicare is expensive now, wait until 10,000 aging hippies a day find out they can get free drugs.’” And when a questioner in Des Moines asked the reason for his Iowa surge, he quipped that it was “because the people are very, very smart here.”

But his best-known comedic endeavor is probably his campaign’s first television ad, featuring an endorsement by actor Chuck Norris. The video capitalized on the popularity of the Chuck Norris Facts Web site, which celebrates the star’s tough-guy screen persona with such humorous adages as, “There is no chin under Chuck Norris' beard. There is only another fist.”

That TV spot brought Huckabee’s jokester tendencies to the forefront of his campaign. But according to Slate’s John Dickerson, that may work against the candidate.

Dickerson acknowledges that, “the jokes have helped Huckabee pry his way into the GOP primary fight … The media love any candidate who is entertaining. Voters mention his humor approvingly when they talk about why they like him.”

There is a limit, however, and Huckabee’s opponents have tried to emphasize this in their attack ads. “The attacks work on several levels,” writes Dickerson. “They suggest Huckabee is too light for the job and also that he makes jokes because he's hiding something. Behind every quip is a troubling reality on taxes, immigration, or his criminal justice record in Arkansas.”

In addition, Huckabee’s reliance on comic acumen also runs the risk of obscuring the religious foundation of his platform.

‘Faith, Family, Freedom’

Huckabee was a Southern Baptist Minister for 12 years in his home state of Arkansas. At the age of 25 he assumed his first pastorate at Immanuel Baptist Church in the town of Pine Bluff. Six years later, he moved to Texarkana to minister at the Beech Street First Baptist Church.

According to Huckabee, this experience only helps him as he travels the campaign trail. “There’s not any social pathology that exists today that I couldn't put a name and a face to,” he told PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. “Doesn't matter whether it's a teen girl who's pregnant, hasn't told her parents, or an elderly couple dealing with one of them being diagnosed with Alzheimer's.”

“So that period of my life where I was literally touching people's lives from the cradle to grave is probably the best way I could have ever been prepared to deal with the job that ultimately is about dealing with people and understanding the incredible frailties and complexities of life,” Huckabee said in the interview.

But as an admirer of Jerry Falwell and the principles of Moral Majority, Falwell’s defunct political organization, Huckabee’s mantle as the Christian candidate has also drawn criticism.

For instance, his belief in intelligent design and his subsequent denial of Darwinian evolution has become a frequent subject of discussion.

Washington Post blogger Joel Achenbach reports that although Huckabee believes in the historical existence of Adam and Eve, he has left “open the possibility that the six days of Creation were metaphorical, and might have represented six billion years. So he's not literally a biblical literalist. In these theological discussions he often takes a step back and says he doesn't know precisely what happened.”

But to Huckabee, his views on evolution shouldn’t matter. Achenbach writes that “[Huckabee] has groused about the evolution questions and says he's not going to be writing anyone's 8th grade science curriculum if he's elected president.”

That remains a big “if” for Huckabee. His success in Iowa has certainly given him momentum, but it remains to be seen if it will be enough to carry him all the way to the general election.
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