For a few days at least Mike Huckabee has turned a bit of good luck and a gift for gibes into a bonafide presidential campaign. By getting 2,587 Iowans to take his tickets and cast them in a straw poll Saturday at Ames he finally won a couple of days of attention from the serious national media, which had pretty much ignored him.
Just as Bill Clinton's distant second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary behind Paul Tsongas in 1992 allowed him to claim victory and grab the momentum, Huckabee hopes his 18 percent showing in the Iowa Republican Party's fund-raising extravaganza has catapulted him into the top rank of Republican candidates. He claimed that status and for a few hours the media accorded it to him. The New York Times prominently published a piece about his campaign humor.
But there are big differences. New Hampshire was a real election and it was against all the real opponents, weak though they were. Three of the four major Republican candidates skipped the Iowa poll, leaving former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to buy an easy victory. Only 14,300 people bothered to participate, an abysmal turnout that suggests Iowa Republicans aren't satisfied with any of the candidates.
That Huckabee was able to separate himself from the hard-eyed right-wingers who make up the second tier of obscure candidates — Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback, Ron Paul and Tommy Thompson — does distinguish him, but it does not change the basic dynamics of the race.
Those are three: He doesn't look and talk like the Republican candidate for president, he does not have the record that will reassure much of the primary base, and he can't raise the kind of money that is needed to run a national campaign. If he does not have the first two requisites, an 18 percent showing against nobodies in an anemic straw poll is not going to help him harvest big bucks. He will discover that in fairly short order.
None of those factors has anything to do with what kind of president the former governor would make. I have a fair degree of confidence that with a good Democratic majority in Congress he would turn in a creditable and somewhat progressive performance. He might even produce universal health insurance — he sharply expanded the federally run system in Arkansas — and it is a sure bet that none of the rest of the Republican field would.
Unless he stumbles badly, Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee because he looks like he will be and he has the money to pull it off and a bond with rich political benefactors. Republicans almost uniformly choose the candidate with the chiseled good looks and macho manner, even if like George W. Bush he is overmatched by the compound sentence. Romney even sounds good, more so when he is contradicting everything that he ever stood for. While Rudy Giuliani's Dick Tracy profile and tough talk are even more appealing, it is hard to imagine Republicans nominating someone who is for abortion and gay rights and who as mayor set up a municipal hideaway for trysts with his young girlfriend. But he is for wider killing and torture.
Huckabee, on the other hand, only appeals to those who want a softer patina on their reactionary politics. Out of hearing of the big primary audiences in the televised debates, he can evince concern for the poor, charity for immigrants and even a little gallantry for Hillary Clinton. Worse than that for Southern and Midwestern Republicans, despite losing 110 pounds he still looks soft and pasty.
Still worse, if he has indeed achieved first tier, he may no longer get a pass on his own profound distortions of his record, that he was an avenging foe of taxes, spending and government. He owed his second-place finish in the straw poll to the work of a group pushing the goofy national sales tax, which provided buses and money to get disciples to the campus to vote for Huckabee. He may be forced to debate the notion and once people learn that it would jack up the cost of every object or service they buy, from a new house to babysitting services and the plumber, by up to 67 percent he won't be funny anymore.
A correction is in order, incidentally, on last week's column. Pointing out that Huckabee was untruthful in Iowa when he said Arkansas voters, not he, approved higher taxes on motor fuels, I wrote that the taxes were never actually on the ballot and that a diesel tax passed by the legislature and signed by the governor was only quietly linked to the public bond vote. But it was worse. The taxes he pushed and signed did not depend on the bond vote at all. If voters had said no to highway bonds, they would have paid Huckabee's diesel and gasoline taxes anyway.