There is something Disneyesque about Mike Huckabee, the Republican who in Iowa on Thursday won his party's vote as the countdown began in the 2008 US presidential election. Look at him and he could be the lead in a cartoon fairy tale about a man with a jokey name who claws his way from obscurity to become a serious contender to lead the most powerful country on earth. His face is perfect potty-putty cheeks with friendly saucer eyes. It could be quite delightful, really. Unless, that is, you find Disney and the man himself scary.
You have to go back to last August and the State Fair in Iowa to see the first pieces falling into place. While the super-well funded Mitt Romney, formerly governor of Massachusetts, was the main attraction, Huckabee was to be found in a small tent on a far edge of the grounds. Yet the tent was busy with Iowan voters nearly all of a certain ilk: evangelical Christians, Baptists and even Amish who had driven for hours to get there. In a straw poll that day, Huckabee took second place to Romney.
That is when the rest of us began to pay attention. What the heck with this man Huckabee? He was a governor somewhere once but even some Republicans weren't sure where. (Arkansas, of course). His campaign had not one highly paid consultant, almost no cash and hardly even existed beyond Iowa. The good folk of Arkansas were intimately familiar with Huckabee. The rest of us were aware of little except perhaps that he had lost a tremendous amount of weight once, and that he played bass guitar.
As our knowledge has grown, the script has only got better. How perfect that he was born in Hope, Arkansas, like another certain former governor of the state, Bill Clinton. (The musical instrument proficiency was shared by them too.) Everything else fits Disney's storyline requirements: the son of a blue-collar family and the first male in his family to finish high school, he is the unlikely outsider repeatedly taking the establishment by surprise.
The man who for now, at least, stands in pole position to become the Republican nominee for president is not just religious and a born-again Christian (like George Bush), he is an ordained Baptist minister. His religious sincerity informs his nearly every political conviction and flavours the populist charm that has gained him so much traction on the campaign trail. He is a social conservative, opposed to gay civil unions, abortion, gun control and stem-cell research. More startling is his avowed scepticism toward Darwin and evolution and acceptance of the seven-days-of-creation message of the Old Testament.
Reporters arriving at the hotel headquarters of the Huckabee campaign in Des Moines on Thursday night, as the first Iowa results were coming in, found the usual shambles. There was no one to spin his message the veteran Republican consultant Ed Rollins was still nowhere to be seen and the most noticeable activity was the prayer circle formed by his young volunteers. No one had even got round to putting up the backdrop behind the podium where, just a few minutes later, Huckabee would be delivering his unlikely victory speech. When it was finally hung, it read "I Like Huck".
Likeability has been Huck-abee's most potent weapon throughout his life, both as a religious leader and, later in life, as a politician. And carefully crafted humility. No one in Arkansas can forget his gesture in 2000 when work began on refurbishing the governor's mansion. Rather than finding alternative fancy lodgings, Huckabee took residence in a trailer on the grounds, albeit a triple-wide one. His father was a fireman and part-time mechanic in Hope and his mother worked as a clerk in a petrol station company. At school, he neither shone in sports nor came top of his class, yet still rose to become student president.
His early calling was Christian, not political. After graduating from a Baptist university, he attended a seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, for a couple of years before dropping out. One of his first jobs thereafter, at just 23, was as a staffer from a then successful televangelist, James Robison. He became pastor at a series of Baptist churches. The pursuit of seniority in the church was also his lesson in politics. In 1989, he ran for the presidency of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and won.
Huckabee has been at pains in this campaign to insist that he will never use political power to impose religious beliefs on others. He said recently that he would rather see an atheist in the White House than a Christian who did not live as he preached. At the same time, he is unabashed about the connection between his religious and political convictions. "Politics are totally directed by worldview. That's why when people say, 'We ought to separate politics from religion,' I say to separate the two is absolutely impossible." As for explaining his meteoric rise in recent weeks, you will hear him quoting Philippians 4:13. "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."
Pundits rather point to Huckabee's chumminess. No question, his success in Iowa was built upon the enthusiasm of one coherent group: evangelical Christians. To get out the vote on Thursday, his campaign relied on a database first compiled to promote the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ. But word spread for another reason too: when people sat down with Huckabee in cafs and diners across the state, he just seemed nice. There is a folksy charm that can be irresistible. Contrast the respective speeches delivered by Barack Obama, the winner in Iowa for the Democrats, and Huckabee on Thursday night. Obama gave us sweeping oratory. Huckabee's speech was the opposite it had intimacy.
It was in 1993 one year after Clinton entered the White House that Huckabee won his first political post, becoming Arkansas' lieutenant general (second to the governor) in a special election. Then three years later the then governor, Jim Tucker, was forced to step down amid an investigation into his financial dealings. Huckabee was sworn as governor on 15 July 1996. He held the office for a decade. Among his first acts: shedding 110 pounds in about as many days after being told by his doctors that he would be dead in a decade if he didn't lighten his bodily load.
There is, of course, some brittle in this candy. Critics in Arkansas argue that he has a vindictive streak. The alternative newspaper in Little Rock, the Arkansas Times, found itself frozen out by his staff, for instance, because of its insistent criticism of him. Max Brantley, its editor, recently stumbled on an email sent by Huckabee to his supporters attacking his weekly as an "ultra liberal and trashy little tabloid edited by Max Brantley, a disgruntled and embittered wannabe editor". The former governor, in not-so-charitable mood, went on to brand the Little Rock press as the "machine gun members of the media".
In the days ahead, Huckabee will come under scrutiny from all the press like never before. And 10 years running a state has left stones to be turned. He has been furiously assaulted by anti-tax lobby groups for high spending habits and leaving Arkansans with higher taxes. There are some ethical clouds too. In 1998 he was fined $1,000 for failing to disclose campaign contributions to him. Later, doubts were raised about the personal use of other monies meant for maintenance of the governor's mansion.
Trickiest, perhaps, is his history relating to a certain Wayne DuMond, who was sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole for raping a woman who had turned out to be a distant relative of Bill Clinton. On winning the governorship, Huckabee made no secret of his belief that the sentence was too severe. When the state's parole board subsequently granted DuMond parole and released him, it was widely assumed it had done so under pressure from Huckabee. As required by the board, DuMond left the state and settled in Missouri whereupon he raped another woman and murdered her. Huckabee is now left battling the charge that he is soft on crime, one that conservatives certainly will not like.
And on the campaign trail now, Huckabee is entirely capable of the odd gaffe or stumble, especially on foreign affairs where he has virtually no experience. Perplexed is the only word to describe his response a week ago to the assassination of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, raising the spectre of Pakistani hordes illegally crashing America's borders. Pardon? He was also forced to admit recently that he was not versed on the contents of a widely circulated intelligence brief on Iraq in spite of his confident support for George Bush on the war and the troop surge.
For months, the national press has surely underestimated Huckabee and his ability to deliver a message that strikes a chord on America's Main Street. The elite in Washington surely scoffed also at his appearing at rallies (and again on Thursday night in Iowa) with the Hollywood action star Chuck Norris at his side. But if there is a snobbery about Huckabee, it must now be set aside.
By the same token, however, Huckabee found himself robbed overnight of something that has worked so well for him until now: the status as outsider and underdog. This, indeed, may turn out to be his 15 minutes of national and global fame. New Hampshire, which has its primary on Tuesday, is not Iowa. Most important, it doesn't have nearly the numbers of evangelical Christians to buoy him.
Of this, Huckabee is hardly unaware. Flying in a chartered Boeing 737 to Manchester, New Hampshire, in the early hours of yesterday (gone are the days when he must travel by turbo-prop or van), the candidate was fairly dizzy with his triumph. Describing the challenge facing him next Tuesday, Huckabee, for better or worse, did what he often does: spoke in religious metaphor. "We've got to convert a lot more people in New Hampshire in the next five days. We're going to have a big tent revival out on the grounds of the Concord State Capitol, get them all converted to evangelical faith, then we'll win."
Humour works well for Huckabee. He is funny when other candidates are testy. But from him religious metaphors sometimes sound a bit too real. Which is why this movie might be more scary than fun.
A Life in Brief
Born Michael Dale Huckabee, 24 August 1944, Hope, Arkansas.
Education BA in speech and communications at Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia. Spent a year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, before dropping out to work for the televangelist James Robison.
Career Pastor for several Southern Baptist churches in Arkansas. His sermons were broadcast over his own Christian radio and TV station. Lieutenant governor of Arkansas for three years before becoming governor in 1996. He was then clinically obese, and diagnosed with adult onset diabetes in 2003. Gained notoriety by rapidly shedding 110lb. Remained governor until January 2007 when he announced he would run for president. He is a member of a rock band, Capitol Offence.
He says "Even if I were not a hunter, I would still be a firm believer in the second amendment right of Americans to own firearms for self-protection and as a matter of principle."
They Say "Mike's a principled, authentic conservative" Chuck Norris, US actor and supporter.