Cover Story

Huckabee's surge

Campaign 2008 | The campaign trailblazer from Hope, Ark., is former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee, whose sudden rise in polls has shaken the GOP. But as Iowa caucuses approach, the questions will become tougher and the spotlight brighter

Issue: "Out from the shadows," Dec. 22, 2007

Show up at Lizards's Thicket any Saturday morning in December, and you can order liver pudding, Carolina catfish, or the All-American with scrambled eggs. If you showed at the legendary Columbia, S.C., restaurant on Dec. 8, though, you could be one of over 300 people, including journalists from Sweden, Belgium, and Japan, listening intently to GOP presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee.

Crowds surged around Huckabee everywhere he went during his final Southern lap; he plans to head to Iowa on Christmas Eve to campaign up to the state's caucus, the nation's first official test by voters, on Jan. 3. At a fundraiser in Asheville, N.C., on the evening of Dec. 8, the dinner crowd topped 1,000 and the line of prospective supporters waiting to greet Huckabee outside a $100-a-head reception snaked back and forth to accommodate its growing length.

Men in suits and women in sequined tops shepherding children in taffeta holiday dresses all waited for a moment with the candidate beside the appetizers. Denise Peters, co-owner with her husband of a successful car wash, thought she'd vote for Fred Thompson: "But Huckabee is saying what everyone wants to hear. I am very impressed."

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Eleven months ago conservative political leaders and policy wonks were not impressed when Huckabee spoke at the January "Conservative Summit" sponsored by National Review Institute in Washington. Mitt Romney received star billing for a Saturday night banquet speech. Huckabee, shoehorned into a Sunday morning slot, walked through the JW Marriott Hotel without being stopped by anyone except a WORLD reporter. (See our Feb. 17 cover story.)

Leaders of evangelical political groups intent on vetting (and perhaps anointing one of) the "first rank" contenders-Romney, Giuliani, McCain, or Thompson-were not impressed throughout the first 10 months of this year. By October despair had settled in among many evangelical politicos and pundits because none of the big four was awakening hope. It seemed too late for a fifth to join the fray and raise enough troops and money to do well in the packed-in primary schedule following Iowa.

And then came Huckabee's November surprise that has continued into December. In Iowa, where Romney had outspent the former Arkansas governor 20 to 1, mid-December polls showed Huckabee with a big lead. GOP polls showed him challenging Giuliani for first place nationwide. Suddenly contributions were flowing. Huckabee's South Carolina field director, Chris Caldwell, said on Dec. 8, "Two weeks ago this felt like a plain campaign. Now we are desperately ramping up."

With the burst of acclamation comes fresh scrutiny. Huckabee barnstormed through the Carolinas as reporters grilled him about statements-in a 1992 Associated Press questionnaire when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat-that he had advocated a quarantine for AIDS patients, opposed an increase in federal funding for AIDS research, and described homosexuality as "a sin."

Huckabee told reporters that his comments had come when "the AIDS crisis was just that-a crisis." He said prior to the outbreak of AIDS the United States had always quarantined carriers of a disease when its causes and means of transmission were unknown. "We didn't know exactly all the details of how extensive it was going to be. There was just a real panic in this country. If I were making those same comments today, I might make them a little differently."

Pressed on whether homosexuality is sinful, he said, "I think people have a right to live any way they want to. I have said all along that I think it is outside the boundaries . . . sinful? I believe it would be considered sinful for anybody with a traditional worldview."

As the questions continued, Huckabee held fast with direct responses and persistent cheerfulness, two traits that seem to be winning over voters on the campaign trail: "It is flattering that people now are digging back to things I wrote or I have said. If the worst thing somebody can say about me is 15 years ago I said we are heading to a crisis about this disease, then I am probably going to be OK."

Will he be OK politically? Huckabee's stump speech displays his tremendous gifts and also hints at the challenges he will face.

His opening jokes are familiar to many on the campaign trail but draw laughter from the crowds: "I sat down on a plane next to a guy who wanted to tell a joke about a politician from Hope, Ark. I said, 'Wait a minute. You may not know me, but I have to tell you that I'm a politician from Hope.' And the guy replied, 'That's OK. I will tell it real slow.'"

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