The Big Question: How extreme is Mike Huckabee and could he reach the White House?

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Why are we asking this now?

A few months ago, the evangelical preacher turned politician Mike Huckabee from Hope, Arkansas was a long-shot candidate for the Republican leadership, his support hovering between 0 and 3 per cent. Now the electric guitar-playing Southern Baptist has shot into second place behind Rudy Giuliani.

Backed by an unpaid army of evangelical Christians and America's gun-lovers, he is best described as the Barack Obama of the right. Initially dismissed as an oddball candidate who could not even count on the support of the religious right, Huckabee is now a contender for the Presidency. He is seen as authentic because he gives straight answers and does not shift position. He appeals to the deeply conservative Republican base and unlike Giuliani he firmly opposes abortion, gay marriage and gun control.

What kind of views does he hold?

As a seasoned politician who was also one of the first successful televangelists, he takes care not to come off too hellfire and brimstone. He believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God and says creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution, but gently reassures listeners, saying: "I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anybody about it."

His undeniable charm and fluency as a public speaker may also ease the qualms of the country's secular voters as well as those of other faiths who are not so keen to have a preacher in the White House. But there is no denying his irredentist views. In 1991, while running for the US Senate, he said that Aids patients should be isolated. When challenged about this at the weekend, he was unapologetic: "I still believe this today, I don't run from it, I don't recant it."

What is Huckabee's background?

When Huckabee was 11, he likes to say, God gave him his first big break. He broke his finger playing Little League baseball and was asked by the town radio station to comment on a game. By 14 he had become a local celebrity, reading the farm news and reporting on sports teams. By 1980 he was a young evangelical organiser in Dallas where Ronald Reagan gave a speech. Huckabee met him and soon realised that the pulpit could wield enormous clout in Washington DC.

How did he emerge as a political force?

Wit and common sense explain a lot of his meteoric rise. The public face in the campaign is one of geniality and fun even though some remember him as a mean-spirited and irascible governor of Arkansas.

While his Republican opponents spend tens of millions on advertising presenting themselves as tough on terrorism and illegal immigration, the Huckabee campaign ad showcases the action star Chuck Norris, replete with non-sequiturs poking fun at the whole genre.

Norris: "Mike Huckabee wants to put the IRS [Inland Revenue] out of business." Huckabee: "When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the earth down.") The ad has been a YouTube sensation.

Could he really handle the presidency?

Unlike most of the other candidates, Democrat and Republican, Huckabee has experience running things. As Governor of Arkansas in 1996, he managed competently with out much controversy, living humbly in a trailer home while the mansion was being redecorated after the Clintons' stay there.

On economic matters he is terrifying Wall Street by offering homespun remedies for reviving the economy such as replacing income tax with a retail sales tax. Voters also seem to like his focus on domestic issues and his apparently fresh thinking. Instead of condemning the teaching of science as a creationist he advocates change and reform in the education system "so that we're capturing both the left and the right sides of the kid's brain". He says that "there ought to be a new focus not just in math and science which there needs to be but also a balanced focus on music and art and right-side-of-the-brain activities. Otherwise, we end up with an education system that's like a data download a great database but no processor."

On health care he does not indulge in the now standardised denunciations of Europe's "socialised medicine", and as someone with type-2 diabetes who was treated for obesity and now runs marathons he is interested in preventative medicine. "The current system says, 'We won't pay $150 for a visit to the podiatrist, we'll wait until there's a $30,000 amputation and we'll cover that'."

What would he do about Iraq and the 'terror' threat?

Huckabee has fundamentalist views on terrorism even if his grip on foreign policy issues is weak: "Islamofascism is rooted in a theocratic Islamic jihadism that seeks to destroy and annihilate every last one of us," he says. "It wants to establish a complete Islamic theocracy across the world and for that to happen it means our culture has to be completely snuffed out."

While out campaigning last week he was asked to comment on the revelation that US spy agencies no longer see Iran as a nuclear threat. Some 20 hours after their report had been issued he had still not heard anything about it.

Who else is in the Huckabee camp?

Along with Christian fundamentalists, he can count on the unflinching support of the millions of members of the National Rifle Association as well as every hunting organisation in America. When his son was arrested trying to board a plane with a loaded gun in his baggage it probably helped rather than hindered his cause among gun supporters. But Huckabee even appeals to liberals, at least when they compare him to some of the other Republicans in the field.

The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg has been smitten by the Huckabee message. "He prefers consensus to confrontation, regards government as a tool for social betterment, and has little taste for war, cultural or otherwise. He seems to regard liberalism not as a moral evil, a mental disease, or a character flaw merely as a political point of view he mostly disagrees with."

When does voting begin?

The first big test is the Iowa caucus on 3 January which is followed almost immediately by the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Huckabee hopes to benefit from the famous slingshot effect of Iowa to get extra publicity and credibility and go on to win all three states where politics takes place door to door rather than by massive TV advertising campaigns.

If Huckabee ends up at the front of the field when 20 states vote on 5 February so-called Tsunami Tuesday all bets will be off.

So could Mike Hukabee be the next US President?


* Americans are tired of well-funded machine politicians, whether Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton, as the polls reveal

* At 52, Huckabee is younger than every other candidate except Barrack Obama, who is 46

* After the acrimony of the Bush and Clinton years, he appeals across party and racial lines to an exhausted public


* Modern Americans do not want a self-certified 'Christian leader' in the White House, however folksy his charms

* Opposition research is already digging up dirt on Huckabee's Arkansas past, from his position on Aids to his expenses

* He wants to ban gay marriage and abortion, and abolish income tax. As New Yorkers say fogeddaboutit!