Everywhere I go in Arkansas, people remark that surely Mike Huckabee cannot be serious about running for president.
It seems that Wide Body No More suffers from a slight case of Gorbachev Syndrome, by which a political leader gets little to no respect at home while his stature grows abroad.
Well, not his actual stature. Huckabee doesn’t appear to have regained any of that weight. The regard in which he’s held — that’s what grows outside Arkansas.
But make no mistake: Huckabee is seriously running for national office. And I’m not sure who beats him in a Republican primary ... for presidential runner-up, that is, and maybe, in turn, the ticket.
Let’s begin by taking a few people out of the equation.
• John McCain, because Republicans most likely will be so determined to stop Hillary Clinton that they’ll hold their noses and nominate him on the basis that he qualifies as their likeliest winner with the strongest general election appeal.
• Rudy Giuliani, on the basis that, heroism aside, he’s a liberal on abortion and gay rights, and liberals on abortion and gay rights can’t possibly win modern-day Republican presidential nominations.
• Condeleezza Rice and Jeb Bush, because both swear they’re not running, and we may as well take them at their word.
Otherwise, the field is so dreadful that Huckabee is no weaker than any and stronger than some.
Bill Frist, for example, has squandered most of whatever credibility he had attained, first by diagnosing Terry Schiavo (incorrectly) by a brief videotape, then by proposing that the government respond to high gasoline prices by sending everybody a check for $100.
George Allen, for example, finds himself mired in an eerie controversy because he apparently maintained an odd affinity even into adulthood for the Confederate flag. He wore a Rebel pin in his official high school photograph. He displayed the Stars and Bars on his college pickup, acquaintances say. As a young adult, he kept a Rebel flag at his home because, he says, he always had a personal interest in all kinds of flags and was a collector.
While that actually might help him with Southern Republicans, it’ll hurt elsewhere and surely diminish Allen’s appeal to McCain for the second spot. One doesn’t want to burden one’s ticket with instant attention to racial insensitivity.
Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts governor, is not fully trusted as a conservative, owing in part to his saying years ago that while he was pro-life, he wouldn’t try to do anything as governor to change the pro-choice status quo. That kind of tolerance and pragmatism has become wholly unacceptable to modern-day Republican primary voters.
Against all that, Huckabee’s not inconsiderable failings seem positively manageable.
The Club for Growth, the arch-conservative, anti-government group, alleges that Huckabee’s record in Arkansas is entirely too replete with liberalism and big spending. Huckabee’s Achilles heel — that he is thin-skinned and childishly combative — is known only to Arkansans and a few liberal and journalistic Web sites tipped by the Arkansas Times.
People tend not to judge personal behavior until they see it for themselves. Arizonans have long tried to tell us that McCain can be frightfully testy, but we haven’t paid any mind.
When McCain begins to search for a running mate, I’m wondering who’ll look better in a general election context than a Southern Baptist preacher and governor of a battleground Southern state who is progressive on race and immigration, accused of dreaded moderation by the Republican base and sufficiently embraced by the extreme religious right to have been invited to speak to that Fort Lauderdale group’s rally about taking back America for Jesus.
I can see Arkansas emerging in 2008 as the center of the political universe. You could have McCain-Huckabee for the Republicans. You’ll almost certainly have Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. And I’m not sure that there’s a potential running mate for her who would provide greater credibility, balance and gravitas than the four-star general from Arkansas, Wes Clark.