Holly Bailey, at least, is not stunned by Mike Huckabee's surge. Holly, who coauthored our cover profile of Huckabee with Michael Isikoff, has been following the former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister for months. "The fact that Mike Huckabee is rising in the polls isn't a surprise to me or many of the reporters who have been covering his campaign since the summer," Holly says. "The first time I ever interviewed Huckabee was at the Iowa State Fair, when he was basically written off as a candidate. It was 105 degrees out, just miserable, and almost 100 people showed up to hear him speak, which was a pretty great crowd for a guy considered at best a long shot. He didn't sound like a typical Republican: he railed on his party for selling out to Wall Street and corporate interests and talked up arts and music education. And he came across as just a regular nice guy. Afterward, I trailed him as he tried to figure out what he could eat at the fair without violating his diet. He didn't have a big campaign entourage keeping reporters away, so I stood there and grilled him on food options. Corn dogs and fried Twinkies, he said, were out. And when I brought up the fair's more exotic menu, including its legendary Hot Beef Sundae, he looked disgusted. 'Even in my fattest days that didn't sound appealing to me,' he said. In the end, he chose a pork chop on a stick. Those were the easy days for Huckabee. Now he's on top of the polls in Iowa and with that comes a lot more scrutiny of his record back in Arkansas, including ethics problems and positions on immigration and taxes that could hurt him with Republican voters. Huckabee was still the nice, accessible guy from the fair when I spoke to him last week about his critics, but from the tone of his voice, I could tell he doesn't particularly like talking about this stuff."
"This stuff" also includes matters of religion, a subject Mitt Romney addressed last Thursday in College Station, Texas. The battle for Iowa on the GOP side has taken on a religious cast, with many likely evangelical caucusgoers (46 percent in the NEWSWEEK Poll) saying Romney's Mormon faith makes them less likely to support him. Huckabee, by contrast, is surging among such voters, who may make up as much as 40 percent of the electorate in Iowa on Jan. 3.
A word of disclosure. Early last week it was reported that Romney was "rereading" a book I wrote in 2006 on the American tradition of religious liberty, "American Gospel." In the book and in an essay for this week's issue, I argue that religion is important but not all-important in our politics and public life, and that the Founders gave us a republic in which many may believe but none must. Religious adherents, in my view, should be the most ferocious defenders of liberty of conscience, including the rights of those not to believe, for if God himself, in theological terms, does not compel obedience, then no man should try. The night before the speech, Romney called to talk about what he was going to say (for more on all this, see "The New American Holy War," beginning on page 30). In College Station, Romney addressed an important subject, but did not, in my opinion, define religious liberty as broadly as the Founders did: their understanding of it extended to those who were not choosing among denominations but were altogether skeptical of religious traditions. Then, in a follow-up interview with me on Friday evening, the governor finally did acknowledge that religious liberty includes those of no religious belief.
It is not too much to say that the clash between Romney and Huckabee in Iowa touches on the most fundamental things about America. Whoever wins, let us hope that Lincoln's "better angels of our nature" will prevail.