Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee seems well-suited to win a core Republican constituency: conservative Christians and other "values" voters. The Arkansas preacher and former governor is pro-life and opposes same-sex marriage. He's also articulate and amiable, and he plays a mean bass guitar. So why doesn't he get more backing from hard-core conservatives? Even as his poll numbers inch up—he's at 12 percent in Iowa, and has 7 percent support nationwide in a recent Gallup poll, up from 4 percent in August—he hasn't attracted significant financing. He raised only $1 million in the last quarter, compared to $11 million for the front runner, Rudy Giuliani. Recently, Huckabee met with a group of correspondents and editors in NEWSWEEK's Washington bureau to make his case. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Do you think if you can do well in Iowa, you'll get a big bounce that will take you through?
Mike Huckabee: Yeah, what we have to do is the whole slingshot effect that people talk about. And I know there are a lot of questions as to whether or not it will happen this time, because of the packed and front-loaded primary [schedule]. But obviously for me it needs to happen, and I still think it will, because, frankly, now more than ever, the entire election process can literally turn in a 24-hour news cycle.
Why don't you seem to be doing better with the Christian conservative crowd? They're out there saying they are desperate for a candidate; they don't like Giuliani or other people. You seem to fit in most ways what their ideal candidate might look like. And yet when we raise your name with them, they say, "Well, he can't win."
Well, you keep telling them that and that will help a lot. [Laughs.] It's beginning to change: In Iowa I'm tied with [Fred] Thompson; I'm several points ahead of [John] McCain. People are beginning to realize that with a very limited level of resources, we're in the same hunt as these guys ... Sometimes people will pose the question to me: is it disappointing about the money you've raised? And I say, "No, from my perspective, I'm amazed at how far we've gotten. When I look at how much money some of these guys have spent, if I were them, I'd have to be on a couch getting some serious counseling, because it would be very depressing to [have spent] tens of millions of dollars …" In some cases they've written checks out of their own accounts for a bunch of dough, and they're barely polling ahead of a guy who has been tagged as "he's not raising much money."
You're making that argument to the leadership and the Christian conservative community, and what are they saying?
Some of the people in leadership positions among the social conservatives have become more process-focused than they are principle-focused, and that's unfortunate because they will marginalize themselves out of any relevance if they continue in that vein.
The first argument they seem to making about you is, "He can't beat Hillary. He doesn't have the chops to beat Hillary. He doesn't have the money to beat Hillary. He can't do it." Lately, we're also hearing, "He doesn't have the foreign-policy credentials, he can't fight the war on terror."
Well, I think I would probably be poised to beat Hillary more than any other candidate in the race. One, because among the things I'll bring to the race will be a more intimate knowledge of her and what she's likely to do. I know her better than any of the other people running for president … and therefore have a healthier respect for her. On foreign policy … a lot of people underestimate the exposure that governors have to an international stage. We're dealing with trade issues and cultural exchanges, and in the case of the war, we've all been responsible for being a part of helping send out National Guard troops into Iraq. Most of us have been there—I've been to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait.
What were your dealings with Hillary?
Personally, I didn't have a lot of dealings with her; I had more with her husband. And even those were somewhat limited, because it wasn't like we were hanging out together. But I understand something about some of her passions and priorities. I know a lot of the people she was very close to. Arkansas is a small enough state so that everybody knows everybody. Heck, most everybody is kin to everybody, so it even gets more intimate than that. So, I know her to be a person of incredible discipline, extraordinary focus. Very different from her husband, who is the ultimate accommodator. She is not a natural accommodator. She may evolve into that for the campaign, but it is not her basic nature to accommodate the opposition … You know I always had, frankly, a decent and good relationship with her and with Bill Clinton and see no reason that I wouldn't continue to, even if we were opponents. It doesn't have to be uncivil. But I do think the Republicans tend to underestimate her, because I hear a lot of them say things like, "I hope she's the nominee; boy, that will energize the base." What they don't understand is it will energize her base, too, and that's a pretty good-sized base.
What do you make of the conservative mutiny against Giuliani led by some familiar figures?
It's not just that Giuliani's positions are significantly different than the core conservative constituency, but he's been outspoken in the past, saying things that really lit up that community … whether it's the NRA or the pro-life community. So I think that's some of it, but I think there is among many people a healthy respect for him. I know my own attitude is I don't agree with him on several key issues. But I have said and I'll continue to say that I do respect that at least he's honest and forthright about his positions and that he hasn't changed them just to run for president.
You're behind in money and polls in a big way: what is your path to leapfrog past Romney and Giuliani and McCain and everybody else. You say you'd be great against Hillary Clinton, but how do you get there?
First of all, people forget: four years ago it was Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt duking it out for first and second place in Iowa, and when A and B start fighting, C often wins. And so, I like being C. It's a much better position than being the dead carcass of A or B … I mean I've got as much cash on hand right now as John McCain and no debt. Has he raised more money than me? Sure he has. But he's spent more money, and I'm ahead of him in many of the national polls and certainly in the Iowa polls. So am I better off or worse off than he is? I'd say I'm better off. I haven't laid anybody off, I haven't fired anybody. I didn't have to borrow money.
Now is the time when it's going to start getting expensive, when you're sort of expected to go on the air in Iowa. How are you going to do that?
We like to say in our campaign [that] our greatest ally is Santa Claus. Santa Claus is coming to town and folks, in December, from about the first week until the 26th, nobody—I don't care how much money they have—can compete with Wal-Mart and Mattel and Toys R Us to capture the attention of the marketplace.
You mentioned the conservative resurgence under Reagan. That was a long time ago, of course, and there is some talk about how the arc of that conservative movement has passed, or is passing. What do you say to that?
I think it's certainly changed, and that's one of the things that I believe I can bring back to the party: recapturing a lot of those Reagan Democrats that we've lost. We've lost them because right now our party is perceived as a completely establishment party, a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street, corrupted by K Street, not in touch with Main Street. People have become disenchanted. You know there are some significant things that have happened in my campaign that I think are sort of harbingers of what could be. I'm the first Republican in 119 years to get the endorsement of the [International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which has] 750,000 members. And I'm the first-ever Republican presidential candidate that actually went and spoke to the National Education Association. I got 48 percent of the African-American vote in my state for my gubernatorial re-election. You'd be hard-pressed to find any Republican anywhere in the country who did that. So I have a history of being able to get the nontraditional votes but still be true to the core of the Republican base. That's what gave Ronald Reagan a capacity to win, and, frankly, if we don't have that in our general-election strategy, we lose.
The incumbent Republican president has gotten us involved in a war in Iraq that is highly unpopular and is thought to be a quagmire … What would you do differently in Iraq?
The biggest problem is maybe not what we will do, but the fact that the administration never fully communicated to the American people why we were there, and then made serious mistakes in carrying out the post-Saddam Hussein period of rebuilding the country, never putting enough soldiers on the ground to really bring stability. You have Sunni and Shia issues that we're never going to fix. They've been going on for 1,400 years and they are going to continue to go on. But I think the next president has got to be able to communicate effectively to the American people not just something about our vision and renewal capacity—our resilience as a nation—but he's got to be able to explain what is really taking place and the true threat with Islamo-fascism. I don't know that the average American gets it yet: that there really is a serious threat to our long-term security, and it is unlike the other wars we've faced before.
Once that's communicated, what would you actually change or not change in terms of what's actually happening on the ground?
Well, even the Democrats agree [that] we can't just pull out today. I think in this last debate they had, when they really got down to it, they were admitting that we're there for a while. Even if we wanted to start pulling out today, it is not possible to be out of there by Christmas. What we first have to do is to realize that our goal is to get out, but it's to get out with both victory and honor. If we don't do that, we need to remember that in war, it's about will. Whoever gives up loses. Whoever loses has emboldened the enemy and has demoralized his own army.
So keep the number of troops there indefinitely for now?
I would listen to what the military commanders on the ground said we had to have, and I would make sure they could justify what they were telling me. But I wouldn't second-guess their every move because its their blood that's going to get spilled out there. I think that was one of our big mistakes: every military expert said that we needed between 300,000 and 500,000 troops to make this work, and yet the Defense Department under Rumsfeld was adamant. [It wanted] a light footprint, 180,000 troops on the ground and no more.
If we've got to win, and generals are saying we need more troops, and we don't have them—where are going to go from there? That seems like a pretty bad situation.
It isn't a great one. Part of what has happened is we've done so much of this on our own, and we haven't had the support of the other nations. [We] haven't had the support of, frankly, one group of people that ought to be financing most if not all of it, and that's the Saudis. Our purchase of their oil has made them obscenely rich, and the tragedy of it is that while the Saudis take our money for oil, most of the terrorism against us is actually funded by that very money, which is the ultimate irony. I don't think we've been nearly as forthright and tough on the Saudis as we should be.
But why would the Saudis want to fund or support the emergence of a Shia-led state that is in alliance with Iran right on their border?
Well, that's part of the problem. We didn't think that through very carefully because the Saudis are not as interested in helping the United States as they are in making sure that the Sunnis win. I mean, they have a different goal, and that's why I sometimes think that, even though I may not be a foreign-policy expert, I understand that there are complexities in these issues … Part of what our long-term national security [depends on] is completely ending our dependence on foreign oil. We've got to start thinking in terms of a 10-year-or-less plan to become independent of foreign oil, and if we don't, then we really don't have any national security. That's one of the things that troubles me most, I hear people talk about a 20- and 30-year plan to get to energy independence—too late.
Would you raise gas taxes?
I think it's more about creating an economy where you don't put taxes on energy production that gives you alternative sources of domestically produced energy … We're already beginning to see technology that didn't even exist, and I was trying to remember the exact figures but the difference in what it was costing and the return on solar energy like 20 years ago versus today is dramatically different, because we know much better now how to really harness solar energy than we did then. There's a greater use of not just hydrogen cells but actual hydrogen produced out of ammonia that has only a water byproduct. Wind is becoming increasing valuable.
You can't get much out of out of that alternative energy on the kind of timeline you're talking about—10 years, maybe. You've got to do something else.
In the interim, we ought to go ahead and use our domestic sources of oil. In the continental shelves and in ANWR [The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge], not as a long term but as a short-term measure. It's not long-term because it's not sustainable and it's not renewable. But it's short term to buy some time.
[Regarding] conservatives and evangelicals and their disappointment with Giuliani … how do you feel about this idea of a third party? Who would be viable candidates for that and what would that do to you?
I think it's got to be looked at as saber-rattling at this point. I can't imagine that there's a serious effort to draft a third-party candidate, and my response to it is, why do you need a third party? You've got a candidate that you can coalesce around and win with. You know, here I am, send me to work. But a third-party candidate, if they were to find somebody and have any sort of push at all, probably solidifies Hillary's election.
Can you ever imagine working with Giuliani? Being a running mate …
Let's rephrase it: could I ever imagine Giuliani working with me?
You know his campaign said good things about you. You were mentioned in their strategy memo that got sent all over town, and I think an obvious question that people were asking was: are they being nice to you because they might consider you for vice president? Would you share a ticket with him even though you disagree …
Oh, you know I'm running for president, not vice president, and it's a natural question and you've got to ask it, [but] you don't expect me to [answer], and I'm not going to do that. It's not that I'm being coy, but I'm really not going to let myself start thinking about the what-ifs.
Let me ask you specifically about money, because some people say that money reflects an ability to manage well and to lead well. If you can't raise money, it's indicative of an inability to manage well and to lead well ...
Au contraire! See what I would tell you is this: if I'm able to get as far as I have with the resources I have, I think it shows a great level of management skill, because I would say, wouldn't you hate to have a president who had his hands on the federal treasury and spent the money of the taxpayers like he's spending on his campaign? That to me would be more dangerous.
But why can't you raise more money?
McCain-Feingold is really a very corrupted system. It's a disastrous system. If you're a federal officeholder, a senator, you just transfer some money over to your presidential campaign from your Senate campaign and you've jump-started the whole process so you can hire fund-raisers, you can send letters, you can do all this stuff that … it takes money to raise money. So you have to have money to start with, or if you're very wealthy, you write a personal check, you pop it into your account, because you can give unlimited amounts to your own campaign. It's not because the law restricts me, but my checkbook restricts me. So we have a system that is really tilted toward already entrenched Washington politicians and very wealthy people. We need to be screaming about how the process is really corrupt. But I'm not one of these going around whining about it.
On education, how would you close the achievement gap?
The good thing about No Child Left Behind is it finally recognizes that every child is an individual. The downside was that there wasn't a way to factor in that the school might have a disproportionate number of kids either [with learning disabilities or who speak limited English]. Two [other] negatives that I can think of: one is that, despite that we have put music and art as a part of the core curriculum, the bad thing is we're only really testing for math and reading, and schools are like most entities: what you're not held accountable for, you don't worry about. And as a result … schools have cut their music and art programs because they only want to put a focus on the things they're going to get tested on. The biggest single mistake we've made in the last generation is that we've created a left-brain education system. And when you do that, it's like having a computer that has a wonderful database and no operating system. We have 6,000 kids that drop out of school every day in this country—6,000. There are millions more kids that lay their heads on the desk and take the most expensive nap in the country—at the expense of the taxpayers—and its not because these kids are dumb. These kids are bored.
Is there a way for the Feds to take on the teachers' unions? Would you get into that?
I certainly did in Arkansas where I thought they were wrong, but I also found that there were times when it wasn't [a matter of] "taking them on." It was doing things that were good for the students. And I always told them, "I'm not a school person, I'm a kid person. And my focus is not going to be about what is good for the school. This isn't about perpetuating the institution." But we raised teacher pay, we improved benefits, we created some incentives; forms of merit pay that would give incentives to people that did well. I think those are important factors. The [unions] don't like all of them, but they don't hate everything, either. I think it's a matter of finding the common ground and being honest when you disagree with them, and I certainly did ... they worked against me in every election I had in Arkansas.
Governor, we only have two more minutes and I wanted to ask you quickly, could you tell us a little more just about who you are, what books you like to read, if you're going to go on vacation …
My hobbies are running, hunting, fishing and music.
What do you hunt and fish?
Duck, deer, turkey and I did do an antelope hunt last year in Wyoming, it was pretty cool … I'm hopefully going to do a duck hunt in South Carolina and a pheasant hunt in Iowa and so …
You're not going to shoot anyone, are you?
Dick Cheney is not invited to the hunt. I don't know who he's for, he may take me out. The Romney camp may pay him or something. [They might say] "OK, Huckabee is your target today."
What do you like to read?
I read a lot of publications, periodicals. I'm more of a periodical reader just by the nature of my life, it's so fragmented that I don't … and NEWSWEEK is one of them. I read all the newsmagazines. Then I read some stuff for fun. I'm a subscriber to Bass Magazine, Bassmaster, Ducks Unlimited … I get some of those that are pure fun, Arkansas Sportsman. So those are my indulgences. I read a lot of stuff online. I like to read some books, but I don't like to read [just] anything. I want it to be something that going to tell me something I don't know. I typically am not going to read a book if I think I'll already agree with it because it's a waste of my time.
Naw, I never read fiction. I just read a book by Francis Collins called "The Language of God." Francis Collins, the Genome Project guy. He's a very strong Christian believer, he's also a very strong evolutionist and it was a very fascinating book, and I really enjoyed it.…
Does that mean that you don't agree with evolution?
Well, I believe there's a difference between macro0 and micro-evolution. Some people, for example, believe that God had no role at all in the creation of the universe. I believe he did. And to me that's the real issue. [During one of the debates], I thought "Oh, dear Lord, why is this the discussion for a presidential candidate?" My point was, I don't know how long it took, I don't know when it happened, where it happened, I wasn't there. But if you want to pin me down, I believe that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. I don't know how he did it. How long did it take him? Don't know, [this question] is not to me fundamental to being the next president of the United States.
Dan Bartlett, former counsel to President Bush, recently remarked that you have "obvious problems" as a candidate. These "problems" were your last name, Huckabee, which he apparently thought was flawed in some way, and the fact that you're from Hope, Ark. What is your response?
My last name has never opened doors for me because it's not the name of a prominent, wealthy or heralded political family. But the Bible says that "a GOOD name is more to be desired than great riches." And my name represents the sacrifice, hard work, and old fashioned discipline that my Dad gave me when he didn't have the education, wealth or position to give me anything else. It's a name I wear proudly—not just for myself, but all those who like me have fought their way beyond poverty to live and love the American dream.