What's going on with Mike Huckabee?
With little resources, and with a GOP presidential candidacy hovering in obscurity through the summer, the former Arkansas governor is now running in a dead heat with Mitt Romney in the lead in Iowa.
The former Massachusetts governor's spending in Iowa has been 10 times greater than Huckabee's and, until this week, Huckabee had not run a single ad (versus Romney, whose ads have already run over 5,000 times).
In various national polls, Huckabee is coming in a solid third behind former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
The Washington Post's David Broder provides one hint about the fuel that might be propelling Huckabee. He says that, according to veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, the attributes that are pushing voters' buttons this year are "transparency, authenticity and unity."
A just-released The Economist/YouGov poll shows Huckabee doing well in these areas. Republican voters rate him first in both honesty and morality.
The long campaign and the plethora of pre-primary televised debates have been helpful to Huckabee, whose appeal has come through to voters, but who has not had a lot of resources for his own marketing. He has come off as genuine and not like a candidate, in Huckabee's words, "who's sort of the culmination of a room full of consultants."
There is little question that on social issues that Huckabee, a Baptist minister, is the real deal. This is playing well among Iowa Republicans, a third of whom are evangelicals and 70 percent of whom are conservatives.
But what about the rap against him that he is a populist with little regard for traditional Republican proclivities for unfettered markets and limited government?
He's been accused by the Club for Growth of "big-government liberalism" and called by conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg a "statist."
There's some justification, of course, to these labels. Huckabee invites them when he expresses reservations about free trade, which he does, when he talks about energy independence, which he does, and when he endorses ideas such as a nationally mandated ban on smoking in public places.
But there are important strains in what Huckabee is about that defy simple labels, and in this sense these accusations and generalizations are not legitimate.
When Huckabee says that "strong families are the foundation of a strong country," he means this. This is not a Hillary Rodham Clinton-like political throw-away line.
The traditional-values agenda is as much an economic initiative as anything else.
It's family breakdown and values breakdown that drive poverty in our country today. Poor families are overwhelmingly single-parent families.
Crime and unemployment among black males is a values crisis, and transforming these young men to productive beings is an economic as well as a values initiative. This is anything but statism.
It's tough to see how someone who wants to get rid of the IRS, which Huckabee's "fair tax" initiative would do, can be thought of as someone who loves big government.
His plan, which would replace the income tax with a national sales tax, has plenty of detractors, including those who see it as politically impossible to achieve.
But how do you argue with the idea of taxing consumption rather than income and production, and freeing every American family of having to share every intimate detail of their economic life with the government?
On health care, Huckabee has repudiated mandated universal coverage and supports reforms that would allow individuals the same tax preferences for purchasing health coverage as employers and that would allow a national market, rather than our current state-regulated fiefdoms, for buying health care Sounds pretty darned free-market to me.
On Social Security, Huckabee's plan would eliminate the payroll tax and he has expressed support for the idea of personal retirement accounts.
And, of course, Huckabee is a hard-core supporter of understanding the Second Amendment as protection of the rights of individuals to bear arms.
So the simple big-government-loving box into which many want to stick Huckabee is just not an accurate picture of the man. Do I agree with many of the criticisms in areas where he does want to turn to government? Yes.
Mike Huckabee is not a simple guy. But life is not simple. However, he is honest, he is clear and many, including me, appreciate his unequivocal stand for the traditional values that are critical for the future of this country.
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