Columns » Max Brantley

Huck's bucks

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I have some sympathy for Mike Huckabee. Money isn’t the only way to compare presidential candidacies.

In Iowa last week, the Des Moines Register quoted the former Arkansas governor: “I look at some of these guys ... how much they spend. Do you want someone in charge of the federal treasury who has spent the kind of money some of these guys have spent just to get to July a year and half before the election?”

The obvious follow-up question is — given the choice — would he prefer to have less money or more? Nobody asked, so he was allowed to make a positive of his paltry fund-raising.

In the first six months, Huckabee has raised $1.4 million, less than every other still-active Republican save Tommy Thompson. By comparison, Hillary Clinton has raised $63 million. Huckabee did win a round in the expectations game by raising more in the second quarter — $765,000 — than the first.

But how broad is his support? Huckabee reported about 800 itemized contributions in the second quarter. Clinton, to name one, had 21,000. Sam Brownback, a key rival to Huckabee for conservative votes in Iowa, reported more than 1,800 itemized contributions on the way to $1.4 million in the quarter and $3.3 million for the year.

Huckabee can only play the exceeded-expectations game so long. He was quoted over the weekend as saying if he finishes fourth or worse in the straw poll Aug. 11 at the Iowa State Fair, he’s probably through. Well, duh.

Candidates lay out money to bring supporters to the straw poll. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have said they don’t intend to participate. Romney will spend big. That leaves Huckabee, Brownback and a slew of national non-entities – Thompson, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo. If he can’t slide into third in this group, it is indeed time to head back to North Little Rock to wait for a running mate call.

Huckabee has become cable TV’s favorite presidential jester, with a quip for every occasion. But his wisecracks haven’t translated into much excitement among the electorate, in part because he lacks the money to broadcast his message widely.

Also, what is his message, beyond a nutty national sales tax? Huckabee simply seems a candidate better suited for the relatively moderate atmosphere of an Arkansas general election than a Republican primary. To his credit, for example, he’s not shrill enough on immigration for primary voters. He declines to refer to undocumented immigrants as aliens. “Well, ‘alien’ sounds like they are from outer space,” Huckabee told the Des Moines Register. “They are fellow human beings.”

Seemingly anxious not to offend, he disappears into the woodwork when he says he’s willing to give the surge in Iraq more time. Polls show 75 percent of the country think the war is going badly. But about half of Republicans think the war is going well (I kid you not), so Huckabee sits on the fence. You’d think a long-shot challenger might be bolder, given John McCain’s experience. McCain, the strongest advocate of Bush’s war, has seen his poll numbers plummet. McCain is also a good example of the emptiness of political wisdom on another count. He’s raised $23 million, but pundits have written off his candidacy.

Maybe this suggests a strategy for Huckabee. Make campaign poverty a virtue and oppose the war. The latter would earn plenty of free press.

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