Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Born in Hope, ex-governor of Arkansas, popular for his charm and ahead in Iowa, famed for picking winners

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The sensation of the presidential race was born in humble circumstances in Hope, Arkansas. Helped by a gift for empathy and a smooth way with words, he went on to become a successful Governor of the state, before deciding to launch a long-shot bid for the White House. But this is 2007, not 1991. Meet Mike Huckabee, currently the most fascinating candidate in either party.

Huckabee is no Bill Clinton redux. For one thing, he is a Republican. Both men were raised as southern Baptists, but Huckabee was a pastor for many years and then president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention positions of moral and churchly leadership the wayward Bill could never aspire to. Both have had weight problems, thanks to a weakness for junk food. But unlike Huckabee, Clinton never had to lose 110lbs, almost eight stone, in a single year, after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

What matters now, however, is not this astounding feat of dieting and self-discipline. It is that Huckabee, no less astoundingly, has a good chance of winning the Iowa caucuses that kick off the primary season in 32 days. One poll last week gave him a narrow lead over the previous favourite, Mitt Romney, while another showed the pair in a statistical dead heat. And if Huckabee does win on 3 January, the contest for the 2008 Republican nomination will be turned on its head.

How did it come to this? Mainly because all his better-known rivals have defects. Mix Romney's money and managerial acumen, John McCain's honesty and military record, Fred Thompson's southern charm and Rudolph Giuliani's toughness and you'd have an Identikit candidate to bowl over every Republican in the land. On the other hand, if you blend Romney's Mormonism, McCain's age and support of the Iraq war, Thompson's plodding indolence, and the liberal social views and messy private life of Giuliani, you'd come up with a candidate who might not win a single vote from Christian conservatives, so important a part of the Republican primary electorate.

Enter Minister Mike. But there is much more to it than that. True, Huckabee is a perfect fit for social conservatives. But he proclaims his faith with a beguiling deftness, humour and sincerity. Take last week's televised Republican debate in Florida, questions courtesy of YouTube. Giuliani and Romney plainly can't stand each other, and from the opening bell they went for it. Great TV, of course, but damaging to both of them. McCain's coolness and Thompson's amiability made a pleasant contrast.

The real beneficiary, however was Huckabee, who followed Ronald Reagan's famous 11th commandment to his party, "Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans". Where they outbid each other in their denunciation of illegal immigrants, Huckabee defended his policy, as Governor, of allowing the children of such immigrants to receive the same education as anyone else: to penalise them for the sins of their parents was "unAmerican". He also earned the biggest laugh in response to a question whether Jesus would have approved of the death penalty. Huckabee, who as Governor allowed more than a dozen executions, answered: "Jesus was too smart ever to run for public office."

Above all, he seems to be himself. In modern US politics, "authenticity" is all. But how long and how far will the Huckabee bandwagon roll? Since 1996, Iowa has unfailingly predicted each party's ultimate nominee. But in most national polls he comes no higher than fourth, behind not only Giuliani, but McCain and Romney as well. Thus far, moreover, he's had a free ride. Now his rivals are starting to attack him not least for that supreme Republican sin of raising taxes, when he ran Arkansas.

But American politics have rarely been more volatile. And even if he doesn't win, Huckabee is already being touted as a vice-presidential running mate for either McCain or Giuliani, to make up for any "God deficit" on the ticket. One way and another, this is Mike Huckabee's moment.

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