Speak these two words in the headline aloud. You might need the practice.
It hit me Saturday night, watching the ABC debates in New Hampshire and again Sunday, when Fox talked with Republican candidates. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is the best candidate in the Republican field.
I mean this in political terms, naturally, not philosophical ones. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson are dead or dying. Only John McCain stands between Huckabee and the Republican nomination.
Huckabee is younger, funnier and better able to use the free media that he's proven adept at amassing. Only McCain enjoys as warm a relationship with the national press corps, but McCain is far more likely to go off half-cocked.
I write this before the New Hampshire primary, where Huckabee likely will trail McCain and Romney. But then he goes South. For my analysis there, I turn to a recent e-mail from Jerry King, the flamboyant fundamentalist preacher and former Republican legislator from Greenwood. “I really do not think there are any skeletons of any kind that are going to get those ‘Bible Belt nuts' off Huckabee,” King wrote. “There are 35 to 40 percent of them in 22 of the 31 red states.” If nothing scares off the people who believe as he does, King says, Huckabee's victory is inevitable.
Huckabee, adds King, is “no Pat Robertson.” Rather, said King, he “is clothed in the same cloth as the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan.”
Huckabee's knack for public performance seems to have coated him with Reagan-style Teflon. Judging by the army of former employees and party colleagues who don't like Huckabee much, he resembles Reagan in his ability to cement bonds better with large audiences than individuals. (Huckabee does seem to do better with his own family.)
But presidential politicking is mass marketing. Huckabee has convinced significant numbers of people that he's one of them. When Huckabee flipflops or misspeaks — the list is long: immigration, taxes, war, civil unions, Pakistan knowledge — his admirers see it as merely human, much as they would view their own foibles in a forgiving way. When Mitt Romney flipflops, it's but another bit of damning evidence against the plastic man.
There are reasons to feel warm toward Huckabee. The national Republican establishment — Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, George Will, Weekly Standard, National Review, etc. — has lined up solidly against him. If I were obligated to vote in the Republican primary, and considering this opposition, I might make a nose-holding vote for Huck if I couldn't write in Chuck Hagel. After all, Huckabee jumped in front of some worthy Democratic-sponsored parades in Arkansas. He might do the same with a Democratic Congress.
Fortunately, I don't face such a decision. Plus, the Democratic choices give no cause for hesitation in the voting booth. But I agree with Jerry King's assessment that Democrats are off base in wishing for a Huckabee nomination, particularly should the Democrats make a choice based on personality as well. Thin as Mike Huckabee's policy gruel has been, he's offered more solid sustenance than Barack Obama. Huckabee's 30 percent national sales tax, individual-paid health care and privatized Social Security are dubious ideas on close inspection, but they pack great surface appeal. In a battle of personalities, particularly given the baggage Republicans are eager to pack on Obama, it would be unwise to dismiss Huckabee's chances.