Columns » Max Brantley

Old-time religion

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How quickly Mike Huckabee disappeared to the footnotes of daily newspaper coverage when he left office.

Now a presidential contender, Huckabee has to make things happen with a considerably smaller public relations infrastructure and raise the money himself to pay for it.

Huckabee’s biggest obstacle to achieving the 2008 Republican nomination is the rush by perhaps 20 states to hold early primaries, pre-empting the singular hold Iowa and New Hampshire have had on the nominating process. The retail politicking required in Iowa and New Hampshire provides opportunities for lesser known candidates. It is also cheaper. If 20 states make primary choices on the same day, there’ll be no getting around the financial imperative. No reports are available yet, but no one expects Huckabee to be at the head of the pack when the totals are announced. He got off to a slow start in Arkansas last December when, despite an event to which unlimited contributions could be made (unlike a presidential campaign), he came up with less than $1 million.

If money is most important, message is not far behind. So I’ve been interested to read press accounts lately in which Huckabee has stressed his conservatism before Iowa and New Hampshire audiences. This is an altar call to Republican base voters who, according to polls, have been attracted in surprising numbers to the thrice-married Rudy Giuliani. No covenant bridgegroom, Giuliani has also shared a home with a gay couple and refused to join the anti-abortion crusade.

Huckabee’s play to the base seems a percentage shot in Iowa, particularly. But is it really so smart? To me, the strong numbers for Giuliani suggest that the same old flavors may not sell so well with Republican voters in 2008. Abortion has been so restricted in all but the big liberal states that it’s just about impossible to legislate further against it, except on the thinnest of pretexts. In Arkansas, the best the anti-choice crowd could do this year is a proposal to force doctors to remind women that a medical procedure on their body is their choice, and not someone else’s. (They phrase the proposal much differently, naturally, but that’s its ironic essence.) Gay phobia remains powerful in the Republican ranks, but young people are increasingly less concerned about sexual politics and gay rights is a live issue in only the most liberal states.

Might real issues triumph in 2008 — war and domestic security most of all? Health care and an uncertain economy — the rising tide benefits mostly the wealthy — could be important, too.

Mike Huckabee should understand the power of counterintuitive thinking. As governor, he did best in Arkansas as something of a liberal — compassionate toward immigrants, a free-spender on government health programs, a statist on education standards (I mean this in the most flattering way). It might seem counter-intuitive to emphasize these sorts of things in Iowa. But who’d have thought a liberal New Yorker known for high-profile appearances as a cross-dresser would be topping Republican opinion polls?

Maybe life and death are more important to voters than another chorus of the golden oldies from the Dobson-Falwell hymnal. It might be a year for Republican candidates to demonstrate unconventional wisdom for a change.

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