Running on little cash, Mike Huckabee manages to get much free publicity because of his preacher's gifts and garage-band showmanship. (Trouncing John McCain in the Kansas caucus on Saturday didn't hurt, either.) After taping "The Colbert Report" in New York last Thursday, he sat down with NEWSWEEK'S Howard Fineman. Excerpts:
Fineman : How do you answer people who say that you ensured John McCain ' s nomination by hurting Mitt Romney?
Huckabee: I find it amazing that people would say that I "hurt" Romney. Could it not be that he hurt me? Had he not been in South Carolina—and if Fred Thompson had not been there—I would have won. Would it have changed the universe for me? Yes, it would have. Why is it that my candidacy should disappear? Who is it that has the right to pull the plug on it? Is it my critics? My critics never supported me, so why would I sit around and act according to the chorus of critics? I'd rather act according to the chorus of my supporters.
Did you speak to Romney?
We had a pleasant conversation. I told him I thought he ran a great race.
Do you really think he ran a great race?
He could have done far better if he had run as he really is—which is a brilliant businessperson. He tried to present himself more as the champion of the social conservatives. That was tough for him to sell because of so many positions he had taken that were opposite of that. I was somewhat surprised at the attack ads that he ran. When a person is very loud about something, it may be that they're trying to compensate for weaknesses—in his case, on taxes, as one example.
But why did the talk-show hosts pick Romney over you as the conservative horse to ride?
I honestly don't understand that, because my record on conservative issues is truly unblemished. I think most of it had to do with their perception that, No. 1, I wasn't part of the establishment and, No. 2, I would never be able to raise enough money to compete.
Most of your wins have been regional ones. If you are mostly a " Southern candidate, " doesn ' t that prove their point?
No, it doesn't. I think the significance of our [Super Tuesday] victory in those five states was that we won despite the headwind of all the talk shows, conventional wisdom and the pundits saying, "Huckabee doesn't belong on this stage."
Can you win the conservatives who were backing Romney?
We'll find out how true they are to their cause. If they look at the records of both of us, I think there's no doubt that I've got a more consistent record, not only in my rhetoric, what I've said, but, more importantly, what I've done.
Why do you think that McCain is so distrusted by so many conservatives?
I think [it's] the deals that he made on federal court nominees; his position on embryonic-stem-cell research; his unwillingness to support a Human Life Amendment, which has been part of our party's platform since 1980. I don't think that makes him a liberal.
Given that list, could you support him?
I could support me better, and that's why I'm still in the race. I think people need a choice, and I think I'm going to give them a choice—and that is why it's, to me, very important to stay in and not leave the field. Would I support John McCain over Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Of course I would. Because on his worst day, I think he's going to be a more conservative and, frankly, a more prepared president than either of the two Democrats.
Are you telling me you can win the Republican nomination? It takes 1,191 delegates, and you ' d need to win more than nine of 10 from here on.
I've got a shot. Now, is it a long shot? My life has been a long shot. And if you don't make it, you always look at the progress you made and say, "By golly, with a little more time we might have won this thing."
What does McCain have to do to reassure conservatives?
Even if I knew, I sure wouldn't tell you because I'm not trying to help him out. I want to lock up those conservatives; I want them to realize they have a choice. And frankly, the more conservatives choose me, the more leverage they'll have with Senator McCain should he be the nominee.
If you don ' t win, what would you like him to add to his platform?
I'd certainly like to see a commitment to not raising taxes. I'd love to see him commit to keeping the Human Life Amendment plank in the platform … It is important to many of us who believe that this is not just some peripheral political issue, but it's a moral issue that reveals how we, as a nation, view each other as human beings. I also would like to see an absolute commitment on the Supreme Court justices, that they would be strict constructionists.
Do you want to be vice president?
No. If I did, I'd just put my name out there for that. I'm running for president. Right now, I don't need to make that decision.
If McCain is the nominee, wouldn ' t he be able to win the South regardless of who his running mate is?
I don't think it's all about geography, but if it's not a Southerner in particular, there's going to have to be someone on the ticket who can articulate, communicate and be ready to adhere to things that really matter to people in the South.
You ' re at home on television. Does it upset you that you seem to have been accepted more by the entertainment side of Big Media than the news side?
I think that the people who are connecting with me are probably more in tune with real America than a guy sitting in the chattering class in Washington—no offense to you intended.