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."
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.'"
He speaks movingly about the work and sacrifice of his mother and father, and about his father taking him to hear the governor of Arkansas because "you may live your whole life and never meet a governor." Addressing a roomful of successful business owners and politicians on Dec. 8, he offered a message that is true and bears repeating: "In America you don't have to end where you start."
He speaks about "issues that are fundamental," including traditional marriage-"not because we are against anybody but because we are for something: the preservation of our society." He speaks about the sanctity of life: "It gets to the heart of who we are. . . . Government did not give it [the right to life] and it cannot take it away." That last line on Dec. 8 produced a standing ovation for Huckabee.
The immigration issue is harder for him. He says that "we ought to thank God we live in a country where people are trying to get into this country and not trying to get out." But immigration has become the third rail of GOP politics, and it will be fascinating to see whether Huckabee's "Secure America Plan" to build the border fence and enforce immigration law can assuage anti-immigration conservatives who have not applauded the candidate's compassionate approach.
Other parts of Huckabee's stump speech will be played up by his opponents. He trumpets his plan to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and to substitute a consumption tax for the income tax. Huckabee's critics are claiming that he is a higher-tax fat man in a slimmed-down body. His Main Street populism and hat-tips toward environmentalism and strict anti-smoking measures have already riled The Wall Street Journal and worried libertarians.
Much has been made of Huckabee's background in the same town and state that produced Bill Clinton: Are Americans ready to vote for another Arkansan? But Huckabee, who did not mention Iraq or Afghanistan in his Dec. 8 speeches, will also have to deal with the Jimmy Carter comparison: Is he ignorant concerning foreign policy, or too nice an evangelical guy to do the tough things that may be necessary in a tough world?
Huckabee has benefited from coverage by liberal reporters who enjoy his wit and root for an underdog. Some relish the opportunity to cause mischief among Republicans and embarrassment for major evangelical political figures who spoke of sitting out the election because none of the major candidates appealed to them-and yet one of their own is now on a roll. (Evangelicals have been stereotyped as easily led, but this year the followers are leading and the leaders are playing catch-up.)
Some journalists on the left like The New York Times' Frank Rich are also using Huckabee's optimistic rhetoric as a whip to lash other GOP candidates: Rich complains that their "main calling cards of fear, torture and nativism have become more strident with every debate. The fresh-faced politics of joy may be trumping the five-o'clockshadow of Nixonian gloom and paranoia favored by the entire G.O.P. field with the sometime exception of John McCain."
The questioning of Huckabee concerning his 15-year-old views of AIDS, though, will be followed by other examinations of his paper trail. He and his small group of staffers will also be tested immediately in their ability to create and manage the big operations needed on Feb. 5, when 22 states-including California and New York-hold their Republican primaries.
But what Huckabee has going for him is what George W. Bush has had only on rare occasions-the ability to articulate a biblical position in a way that grabs ordinary voters. For example, during a June 5 GOP debate Huckabee answered what to journalists is a "gotcha" question: Does he believe in evolution or creation?
He responded, "I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I'm asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States. But you've raised the question, so let me answer it.
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. To me, it's pretty simple. A person either believes that God created this process or believes that it was an accident and that it just happened all on its own. . . .
"Let me be very clear: I believe there is a God. I believe there's a God who was active in the creation process.
"Now, how did He do it and when did He do it and how long did He take, I don't honestly know. And I don't think knowing that would make me a better or a worse president.
"But I'll tell you what I can tell this country: If they want a president who doesn't believe in God, there's probably plenty of choices. But if I'm selected as president of this country, they'll have one who believes in those words that God did create.
"And in the words of Martin Luther, 'Here I stand. I can do no other.'"
Mitt Romney's Dec. 6 speech on politics and religion played well with the press. It didn't seem to turn around his slumping campaign.
Journalists and some conservatives fawned over it. On "Hardball," Chris Matthews declared, "I heard greatness this morning." Peggy Noonan said Romney "made himself some history." The left-leaning Boston Globe editorialized that his "political tour de force"was "the most presidential moment of the 2008 campaign." But polls showed Mike Huckabee's lead in Iowa increasing.
Why didn't the speech work? Romney tried with phrases like "the religion of secularism" and "believers of convenience" to hit pay dirt with theological conservatives, but the vagueness of the speech frustrated groups like Courageous Christians United, which picketed the speech. Next to a "JOSEPH LIED" sign, referring to the Mormon founder, President Rob Sivulka said Romney was wrong to "pretend like Mormons are Christians."
Others, such as Evangelicals for Mitt, disagreed, but the speech may have backfired by drawing attention to Romney's faith: A Pew survey showed that before the speech only 42 percent of the public even knew that Romney was Mormon. Since many Americans have negative attitudes toward the Latter-Day Saints, an increased knowledge of Romney's beliefs may not make voters' hearts grow fonder.
Romney in his speech tried to alleviate evangelical concerns. He said Jesus "is the Son of God and the savior of mankind." He asked voters to embrace with him a "common creed of moral convictions." But even Newsweek included in its Dec. 17 cover story a sidebar-"Disparate Doctrines: Two Faiths in Conflict"-that showed Christianity and Mormonism with decidedly different beliefs.
Another poll from before the speech revealed that half of Americans saw Romney as "very" religious, more so than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat, so he will probably face more questions about that which is, and is seen as, very important to him. The press and Romney previously had a tacit rule that his faith was personal and thus off limits; now, it is open season for newspapers and magazines, which may do to Mormonism what they did to Scientology during Tom Cruise's spat with Brooke Shields.