Republicans have won five of the last seven presidential elections by running candidates who broadly fit the Ronald Reagan model--fiscally conservative, and firmly but not harshly conservative on social issues. The wide-open race for the 2008 GOP nomination has generated two new approaches.
Rudy Giuliani, for example, isn't running away from his socially liberal views, although he has modified them. But he is campaigning as a staunch, even acerbic economic conservative. Should he win the nomination, conventional wisdom has it he may balance the ticket by picking former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as a running mate.
Mr. Huckabee, on the other hand, is running hard right on social issues but liberal-populist on some economic issues. This may help explain why the affable, golden-tongued Baptist minister was the clear favorite at the pro-life Family Research Council's national forum last Saturday. And why Mr. Huckabee's praises have been sung by liberal columnists such as Gail Collins of the New York Times and Jonathan Alter of Newsweek.
Mr. Huckabee attributes his support to the fact he is a "hardworking, consistent conservative with some authenticity about those convictions." He is certainly qualified for national office, having served nearly 11 years as a chief executive. I have known and liked him for years; on the stump he often tells the story of how we first met outside his boarded-up office in the state Capitol, which had been sealed by Arkansas Democrats who refused to accept he had won an upset election for lieutenant governor in 1993. But I also know he is not the "consistent conservative" he now claims to be.
Nor am I alone. Betsy Hagan, Arkansas director of the conservative Eagle Forum and a key backer of his early runs for office, was once "his No. 1 fan." She was bitterly disappointed with his record. "He was pro-life and pro-gun, but otherwise a liberal," she says. "Just like Bill Clinton he will charm you, but don't be surprised if he takes a completely different turn in office."
Phyllis Schlafly, president of the national Eagle Forum, is even more blunt. "He destroyed the conservative movement in Arkansas, and left the Republican Party a shambles," she says. "Yet some of the same evangelicals who sold us on George W. Bush as a 'compassionate conservative' are now trying to sell us on Mike Huckabee."
The business community in Arkansas is split. Some praise Mr. Huckabee's efforts to raise taxes to repair roads and work with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Free-market advocates are skeptical. "He has zero intellectual underpinnings in the conservative movement," says Blant Hurt, a former part owner of, and columnist for, Arkansas Business magazine. "He's hostile to free trade, hiked sales and grocery taxes, backed sales taxes on Internet purchases, and presided over state spending going up more than twice the inflation rate."
Mr. Huckabee told me yesterday he also cut some taxes, and has taken the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax pledge. Former GOP state Rep. Randy Minton is not impressed. In 1999, he was urged by the governor to back a gas-tax increase. "I'd taken a pledge against higher taxes, but he sniffed that my constituents didn't understand what we have to do in state government to make it work," Mr. Minton says. "His support for taxes split the Republican Party, and damaged our name brand." The Club for Growth notes that only a handful of the 33 current GOP state legislators back their former governor.
Governors who served with him praise Mr. Huckabee for his ability to work with others, but say he was clearly a moderate. "He fought my efforts to reform the National Governors Association and always took fiscal positions to my left," former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a supporter of Mitt Romney, told me.
Rick Scarborough, a pastor who heads Vision America, attended seminary with Mr. Huckabee and is a strong backer. But, he acknowledges, "Mike has always sought the validation of elites." When conservatives took over the Southern Baptist Convention after a bitter fight in the 1980s, Mr. Huckabee sided with the ruling moderates. Paul Pressler, a former Texas judge who led the conservative Southern Baptist revolt, told me, "I know of no conservative he appointed while he headed the Arkansas Baptist Convention."
Mr. Huckabee's reluctance to surround himself with conservatives was evident as governor, when he kept many agency heads appointed by Bill Clinton. Zac Wright, a spokesman for incoming Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, was asked this year why 15 Huckabee agency heads had been retained. Most of them were "Clinton people," he replied, not "Huckabee people." Mr. Huckabee told me many of his agency heads had "apolitical" responsibilities.
Many Huckabee supporters have told me their man should be judged by what he's saying on the campaign trail today. Fair enough. Mr. Huckabee was the only GOP candidate to refuse to endorse President Bush's veto of the Democrats' bill to vastly expand the Schip health-care program. Only he and John McCain have endorsed the discredited cap-and-trade system to limit global-warming emissions that has proved a fiasco in Europe.
"It goes to the moral issue," he told an admiring group of environmentalists this month. Alan Greenspan blasts cap-and-trade in his new book as not feasible, noting that "jobs will be lost and real incomes of workers constrained." Mr. Huckabee defends his plan as an "innovative" way to attain complete energy independence from foreign oil by 2013.
During a visit to the Journal last spring, Mr. Huckabee joked that one of his biggest challenges is that "like Bill Clinton I hail from Hope, Arkansas, and not every Republican wants to take a chance like that again." But it's Mr. Huckabee who is creating the doubts. "He's just like Bill Clinton in that he practices management by news cycle," a former top Huckabee aide told me. "As with Clinton there was no long-term planning, just putting out fires on a daily basis. One thing I'll guarantee is that won't lead to competent conservative governance."