Columns » Max Brantley

Up with Hope

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The Iowa Straw Poll, a media contrivance if ever there was one, has marked a new beginning, not the end of Mike Huckabee's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

The latest man from Hope finished a distant second to Mitt Romney, not far ahead of Sam Brownback, but he declared himself the story of the day and, this is important, the national press agreed.

The national press likes Huckabee. What's not to like in this setting? There are none of the messy complications that come with governance. He is not subject to any Freedom of Information laws. To date, he's gotten precious few questions about his spotty record on ethical matters and pardons. Only the Club for Growth and the Arkansas Times have called him to account on his exaggerated account of his record on leadership (he mostly stepped in front of a Democratic parade) and taxes (he raised them by the boatload, albeit for worthy purposes).

He hasn't yet gone ballistic on a reporter who refused to kiss the ring. When he's not whining about perceived slights or a roadblock to cadging free gifts, he's a fairly agreeable fellow. He's a good public speaker, at times even inspiring, though more often a walking non-sequitur. He's quick with a quip — sometimes too quick. Even Roger Simon of Politico groaned at his Michael Vick-at-Westminster joke. But his light touch won him invaluable front-page coverage by Adam Nagourney of the New York Times.

The narrative now is that Mike Huckabee is a glib, funny, populist social conservative and perhaps the great white hope of evangelical voters, with crossover appeal in the bargain. In Iowa, he got 500 or more of his 2,500 straw poll votes (about the number cast in a good Little Rock school board race) from a contingent rallied by a group backing the “fair tax.” It's not fair at all, but a sales tax that would mean a 30 percent levy, at least, on the necessities of life. The tab would probably be greater once special interests won exemptions and if government were to continue at current levels. This punishing proposal so far has had scant attention from reporters. They're more interested in corny jokes and endlessly rewarmed parables of yore (Huck's daughter at the Holocaust museum).

If Huckabee is lucky, the focus will continue to be on form and not substance. It worked for George Bush in 2000. It beat Al Gore and John Kerry. (Who'd have dreamed a Vietnam-avoider who went AWOL to the country club would come to be viewed as having a war record comparable to that of a decorated combat veteran?)

Is Huckabee now a top tier candidate? He's at least at the top of the second tier. But John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson didn't participate in the Iowa poll. The turnout was small. No second-place finisher has ever won the nomination. The straw poll isn't even very representative of Iowa caucus voters because it's so easily influenced by purchased votes and special interests.

But, yes. Huckabee is on a roll. Will significant money follow? But more important, for the moment, is that the major press isn't pushing Huckabee for details when he proclaims he's the candidate to deliver victory in Iraq “with honor,” adequate health care and fair taxation. (Who doesn't claim this platform?) As long as Mike can keep the press corps laughing at his pulpit humor, he need not be troubled by explaining how he'd deliver.

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