As new polls highlight Mike Huckabee’s ascent in the Republican presidential field, he is drawing new scrutiny of his record in Arkansas, particularly his actions in the release of a convicted rapist who went on to murder a woman and his response to a questionnaire in which he said people with AIDS should be quarantined.
Two former parole board members in Arkansas said yesterday that as governor, Mr. Huckabee met with the board in 1996 to lobby them to release the convicted rapist, Wayne DuMond, whose case was championed by evangelical Christians.
“He expressed his concerns about DuMond’s guilt,” said Deborah Suttlar, a former parole board member. “He felt he deserved to be released.”
Mr. DuMond went on to murder a Missouri woman after his parole. He died in prison of natural causes in 2005.
Mr. Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor, has denied that he had any involvement in Mr. DuMond’s release, pointing out that he had refused to commute the sentence and that the parole board freed him. But The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that three of the seven members of the parole board said Mr. Huckabee had pressured them, echoing earlier reporting by The Arkansas Times and other local news media.
A Newsweek survey released Friday showed for the first time that Mr. Huckabee had a clear lead over Mitt Romney among likely caucus-goers in Iowa, 39 percent to 17 percent, a rise from near the back of the Republican pack that has been fueled by evangelical Christians.
The surge in support in the highly fluid Republican field has drawn new attention to Mr. Huckabee’s time in Arkansas. On the campaign trail yesterday, Mr. Huckabee did not address questions about the case, but said he was expecting attacks from his rivals because of his newfound status as a legitimate contender.
“Over the next few weeks, I’m sure you’re going to see a whole lot of things,” he told about 400 people gathered in a restaurant in Columbia, S.C. “Already some of the other campaigns are getting desperate. They never imagined they’d have to contend with me.”
Highlighting the new scrutiny of Mr. Huckabee’s record, The Associated Press revealed yesterday that as a candidate for the United States Senate in 1992, Mr. Huckabee said in a response in a 229-question survey that he believed that AIDS patients should be isolated from the public and that homosexuality was an “aberrant, unnatural and sinful lifestyle” that posed a “dangerous public risk.”
Fears of AIDS spreading widely in the United States were common in the mid-1980s, as doctors struggled to learn about how the virus that causes the disease was transmitted. But by the time Mr. Huckabee answered the A.P. survey, it was well established that the virus could not be spread through casual contact.
Mr. Huckabee said in a statement yesterday that there was still confusion at the time about transmission of the disease and that his “concern was safety first, political correctness last.” Mr. Huckabee has been popular among Christian conservatives, who appreciate his stands on social issues and his unabashed professions of faith on the trail.
Mr. Huckabee’s detractors, however, have sought to turn his pastoral background against him, saying his spirituality has made him too soft. As evidence, they point to the DuMond case and his push for a bill that would have made illegal immigrants eligible for college tuition breaks, a stance that has drawn considerable ire from hard-liners on immigration.
Mr. DuMond was convicted in the 1984 rape of a teenager who was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas. While he was out on bail awaiting trial, Mr. DuMond said men forced his way into his home and castrated him, but the authorities said they thought he might have castrated himself in a play for sympathy. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Mr. Clinton’s successor, Jim Guy Tucker, found the sentence excessive and cut it to 39 ½ years, making Mr. DuMond eligible for parole.
While Mr. DuMond was in prison, the Rev. Jay D. Cole, a Baptist pastor and friend of Mr. Huckabee’s, ministered to him, and the inmate later said he had found God.
Mr. Cole said yesterday that he asked Mr. Huckabee to look into the case. “I think Mike was very torn about the whole thing,” Mr. Cole said. “I feel he felt an innocent man was in prison, or if not, he had been in prison too long. But he didn’t come out and say that.”
Nevertheless, soon after taking office, Mr. Huckabee met in October 1996 with members of the parole board, all of whom had been appointed by his Democratic predecessors. Mr. DuMond’s case, with its twists and turns — including a $110,000 judgment against a sheriff who kept Mr. DuMond’s testicles in a jar on his desk — had become something of a celebrated cause among conservative activists, who charged that Mr. Clinton’s relation to the victim had led to Mr. DuMond’s being railroaded.
The parole board meetings are public, but after Mr. Huckabee arrived, the board chairman closed the meeting to everyone except board members. What happened next is in dispute.
A request for a pardon was being considered at that point by Mr. Huckabee, who came out in favor of it. That caused an outcry among some, including the rape victim, who went to his office to ask him to change his mind.
Mr. Huckabee later denied Mr. DuMond clemency, but wrote a letter to him. “Dear Wayne,” he wrote. “My desire is that you be released from prison. I feel that parole is the best way for your reintroduction to society to take place.”
When Mr. Huckabee met with the parole board, according to Ms. Suttlar and Charles Chastain, another board member, he said he wanted to talk to them about a specific case and raised the issue of Mr. DuMond unprompted.
“I’ve looked into this a good bit,” Mr. Chastain recalled Mr. Huckabee saying to them. “I feel he may just be a fellow from the wrong side of the tracks and gotten a raw deal.”
Ms. Suttlar yesterday accused Mr. Huckabee of compromising “the integrity of the parole board.” She was somewhat more lenient in an interview with The Associated Press in 2001, when she said the pressure from Mr. Huckabee “was not coercion, it was an implied thing.”
Olan W. Reeves, who served as Mr. Huckabee’s chief counsel and attended the meeting, said that it was meant only to introduce the new governor to the board and that Mr. DuMond’s case came up when a board member challenged him on his support for clemency.
“He didn’t go over there to talk to them about that,” Mr. Reeves said yesterday. “The governor in Arkansas has nothing to do with parole.”
The board voted 4 to 1 several months later to parole Mr. DuMond, with Mr. Chastain casting the lone dissenting vote, after having denied his freedom repeatedly in previous years. Two board members, including Ms. Suttlar, abstained. She said yesterday she chose not to vote because she was disgusted by what she described as behind-the-scenes lobbying by Mr. Huckabee to have Mr. DuMond released.
But she previously told The Associated Press that she did not vote because Mr. DuMond had accused her of racial bias. She is black, and Mr. DuMond is white.
Mr. Huckabee said at a news conference in Iowa last week that he regretted the entire incident, reiterating that he did not pressure the board to “do anything.”
“I can’t fix it,” he said of the episode. “I can only tell the truth and let the truth be my judge.”
Steve Barnes, Adam Nossiter and Katharine Q. Seelye contributed reporting.