Mike Huckabee's True Calling

For the Rev. Mike Huckabee, the podium is never far from the pulpit. Last month, just as the former Republican governor of Arkansas was unexpectedly rising in the Iowa polls, he was invited to deliver a Sunday-morning sermon at the DFW New Beginnings Church. An evangelical Christian congregation in the suburbs of Dallas (a three-hour drive from the Texarkana, Ark., church Huckabee led in the 1980s), New Beginnings is different from other megachurches in the South. It calls itself a "multicultural" ministry that upholds the Judeo-Christian tradition. The pulpit is adorned with a crucifix inside a star of David. A scattering of "messianic Jews" in the congregation wear yarmulkes. Its message is a blend of theology and self-help. God, the church Web site says, "wants to release the inner winner in you."

As it happens, that is a theme now very much on Huckabee's mind. All his life, he told the congregation as he casually paced the thick red carpet, God has found ways to point him to where he is today. An ordained Baptist minister, Huckabee immediately won over the crowd with a typically self-deprecating joke. "Are you one of those Baptists who think only Baptists go to heaven?" he said a woman once asked him. "No, ma'am," Huckabee said. "I don't think all the Baptists are going to make it myself."

Huckabee, who gave his first sermon as a teenager and got his start as an assistant to a televangelist, wasn't just playing at preaching in Dallas. He didn't take on that awkward way politicians have of speaking in church—drawl artificially deepening, voice dramatically quavering. He was entirely at ease. Huckabee never uses notes when he speaks, yet he covered a lot of Biblical ground in his talk, which centered on God's way of creating opportunity from adversity. He started out with the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers; touched on his own Everyman roots as a once poor kid "one generation away from dirt floors and outdoor toilets"; dipped into Romans 8:28 ("For we know that all things work together for good to those who love God …"), and gave "personal testimony" about how adversity in his own life has made his faith stronger. "You don't know that Jesus is all you need," he said, "until Jesus is all you've got." When he was done, the congregation gave him a standing ovation.

It has become a requirement for presidential candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, to make a public declaration of faith. Some are more comfortable doing it than others. Rudy Giuliani, never a churchgoer, says his bout with prostate cancer made him more spiritual. Mitt Romney has struggled to find the right words to describe his lifelong religious convictions without alienating those suspicious of his Mormon religion. But for Huckabee, Christian faith is not merely a talking point—it is the talking point, the basis for his claim to lead. "Faith doesn't just influence me; it really defines me," Huckabee says in a TV ad now running in Iowa. "I don't have to wake up every day wondering, 'What do I need to believe?' " Just in case his meaning is not clear enough, the words CHRISTIAN LEADER flash on the screen in capital letters.

On the campaign trail, Huckabee quotes Scripture so often that his stump speeches themselves could be mistaken for sermons. He has spent less than $400,000 in Iowa, compared with Romney's estimated $7 million. In a recent speech at Liberty University, the Baptist school founded by Jerry Falwell, Huckabee said his surprise surge in the polls was the result of divine intervention. "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one," he said. Paraphrasing Mark 6:41, Huckabee remarked, "It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people … There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has, and it defies all explanation." At another campaign stop, Huckabee was a young David, "putting that little smooth stone in a sling" and taking aim at Goliath—played by, you guessed it, Romney.

In Iowa, Huckabee's carefully cultivated persona as a kind, thoughtful man of unshakable faith is winning many converts. A long shot just a few months ago, when he was trailing in the low single digits, Huckabee has slowly amassed a sizable lead over Romney, once the double-digit front runner. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Huckabee is the top pick among 39 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers, compared with Romney's 17 percent.

Huckabee has gotten noticed in part by politely exploiting the voters' dissatisfaction with his rivals. He has positioned himself as the only true conservative in the campaign, the one candidate who hasn't conveniently inched rightward on issues like abortion or stem cells just in time for '08. He believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God and says creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution. All the same, he is careful not to come off as all hellfire and brimstone. As he likes to say, "I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anybody about it." Huckabee hopes his charm will help overcome any qualms secular voters or those of other faiths might have about the possibility of a minister in the Oval Office.

Huckabee jokes that he used to have trouble getting anyone to take his picture with a cell phone. Now he is chased by reporters and television crews wherever he goes. Not all the attention is welcome. His political rivals aren't ignoring him anymore—Romney in particular has come at him as soft on taxes and illegal immigrants. "The other campaigns are just in almost frantic mode cranking out negative releases and throwing oppo research," Huckabee tells NEWSWEEK. "Being ignored is sometimes more pleasant, but being attacked means you're doing better."

Though he likes to fashion himself as a folksy country preacher, he spent a decade as the Republican governor in overwhelmingly Democratic Arkansas, a state where politics is rough and memories are long. Over the years, Huckabee made plenty of enemies, not all of them Democrats. Small-government Republicans in Arkansas, who fought the governor over immigration, education spending and taxes, have long complained that he is really a closet welfare-liberal. As a presidential candidate, he has all but declared war on big-business Republicans, believing the standard GOP mantra of tax cuts and unfettered free markets has made the rich richer at the expense of ordinary Americans.

At times he can sound like John Edwards, promising health care for low-income children and vowing to defend wage earners against Wall Street greed and runaway CEO pay. Alone among the GOP candidates, he speaks emotionally about the legacy of Jim Crow and the dangers of ignoring lingering racism. It is wrong, he says, that inner-city blacks routinely receive harsher sentences than affluent whites arrested for the same crime.

For some Huckabee detractors, the trouble isn't his policies but his personal character. Far from his public image as approachable and easygoing, they describe a thin-skinned pol with a short temper and a petty streak who sought to punish those who crossed him. Huckabee has characteristically tried to shrug off these stories with a joke: "It's like my old pastor used to tell me, 'When they're kicking you in the rear, it's just proving you're still out front'."

As a candidate running on morality, he might have a harder time slipping free of long-simmering allegations about his own ethics. As governor, Huckabee battled numerous charges that he improperly took cash, expensive clothing and other gifts from friends and contributors. He was sanctioned or fined five times by the Arkansas Ethics Commission. As lieutenant governor, he received tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from a secretive Texas fund that was financed, NEWSWEEK has learned, in large part by a major tobacco company that was looking for help in defeating a possible national cigarette tax. Though the contributions were legal, and Huckabee says he reported the income, he has consistently refused to identify any of the donors. He tells NEWSWEEK he did not know about any tobacco money. But two of the officers who ran the fund tell NEWSWEEK that Huckabee's account is not credible. One of them, a former Huckabee strategist, says the governor personally met with a tobacco executive about the fund. Huckabee's rivals are clearly hoping to goad him enough that he'll strike back and expose a darker side of his character they say he has so far kept tucked away. The way Huckabee sees it, all the attention—the good and the bad—is a sign that he is where God wants him to be.

He may have found the pulpit at a young age, but Huckabee always considered preaching as preparation for his true calling as a politician. At 52, he says he has come to realize that some of the greatest hardships in his life were God's way of readying him for better things ahead. He had it tough from the start. He grew up poor in a small rental house near the railroad tracks in Hope, Ark. (He still manages a polite chuckle every time a voter tells him, "There must be something in the water down there!") His father was a mechanic and his mother a clerk, and Huckabee says he's never forgotten the way his parents worried about providing for him and his older sister, Patricia: "I really do know what it's like to eat all the food on your plate every night because you've got it right now and you aren't real sure it's going to be there tomorrow."

Tall and lanky with a shaggy head of hair and an easy air of confidence, Huckabee was elected class president. His father, Dorsey, who hadn't graduated from high school, was determined that his son would. Huckabee studied hard in school, and dutifully attended services twice a week at the local Baptist church. When he wasn't memorizing his Bible verses, he could be found on his front porch laying down Rolling Stones and Beatles lines on his electric bass.

When he was just 11 years old, Huckabee says, God gave him his first big break. He was a lousy catcher on a lousy Little League team, and an attempt to catch a foul ball barehanded ended with a broken finger. Huckabee was benched for the season. He was devastated. His coach suggested he head up to the announcer's booth to see if he could help out—the town was so small they broadcast kids' baseball games on local radio. One day, the man who usually called the games was out sick. Stuck, the station manager asked young Mike if he wanted to sit in behind the microphone. The manager was impressed. He told Huckabee to come by the station when he turned 14 and there would be a job waiting for him. Huckabee did, and wound up a local celebrity, reading the morning farm briefing and reporting on University of Arkansas sports teams.

Everything was going according to plan. As Huckabee explained to the New Beginnings audience, that broken finger, so painful at the time, had allowed God to lead him to the broadcast booth. "God used that job to teach me many things about communicating," he said. "Most of all, about getting self-confidence."

In the summer before his senior year, Huckabee's affable manner and quick wit (he's blessed with a stand-up's sense of timing) helped win him a coveted spot at Boys State, the young-leaders camp that Bill Clinton also attended. Huckabee ran for governor, the camp's top office, and won easily. "When I heard him speak, I knew that I didn't have a chance," says Rick Caldwell, who ran against him then. "I even voted for him. He was that good."

When he got home to Hope, Huckabee was greeted by the local police, who were waiting to give him an official escort, just like a real politician. He rode in the car with Lester Sitzes, a friend who'd bunked with him at the camp. It was a dizzying experience. As they rolled into town, Sitzes turned to Huckabee. "You're going to be governor for real someday," he recalls telling him. When that happened, Sitzes joked, he expected his pal the governor to wangle him a seat on the state's Game & Fish Commission. (When Huckabee took office 24 years later, one of his first acts was to give Sitzes his long-awaited job.)

Confident and smooth, Huckabee seemed headed for a career in politics. Instead, he was to take an unexpected detour. His minister asked him to deliver a sermon at church. Huckabee was nervous, but to his surprise, he loved the experience. He shocked friends by telling them he was going to be a preacher, and enrolled at local Ouachita Baptist University. Even then, though, he recalls thinking that the pulpit wasn't his true destination. "I think my life was always headed for politics, although for a time it was diverted to the pastorate," he writes in "Character Makes a Difference," his political memoir.

It was a lengthy diversion. Huckabee would spend the next 19 years in service to the church. After his first year in college, he married his high-school sweetheart, Janet McCain. He earned rent money by working at the local radio station between classes and preached Sunday sermons in a small church. Mike and Janet were still newlyweds when a health scare tested their faith. Janet was found to have a large tumor on her spine. The doctors told him she could die. Instead, the tumor was easily removed with surgery, and despite predictions that Janet would not be able to have children, the couple has three grown kids. (Huckabee's daughter and two sons work for his campaign.)

In the late 1970s, evangelicals began bringing the emotional power of the tent revival to television. Huckabee, just out of seminary, found work with James Robison, a charismatic TV preacher in Dallas, who taught him how to appear natural while speaking into a camera lens. Part of Huckabee's job was to introduce his boss to the television audience each Sunday. But Robison's rumpled prot?g?, with his unfashionable clothes and down-at-the-heel shoes, was hardly ready for prime time. Robison marched him to a department store and bought him four new suits. "You're sharp," he told Huckabee. "You need to look sharp."

In 1980, Ronald Reagan gave a speech before a large gathering of evangelicals in Dallas. Huckabee was one of the organizers and got to meet Reagan. It was then that the young minister first recognized the influence people of faith could have in Washington, D.C., and saw the political power of the pulpit.

Huckabee was ready to lead a congregation of his own. He returned to Arkansas and took over flocks in Pine Bluff and, later, Texarkana. He started television and radio ministries to broadcast sermons and other Christian programs. "Brother Mike" had a soothing style of preaching that drew on his own experiences. "Everyone was impressed," says David Haak, a deacon at Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana. "He delivers a message you can remember, with humor mixed in. We just loved him, all the way through."

In Pine Bluff, Huckabee tested that love. The Immanuel Baptist Church was an all-white congregation when Huckabee took over the pulpit. One day he announced that a young black man, who heard his sermon on the radio, had asked to worship with them. Huckabee welcomed him to their pews. Some church elders were furious and refused to let the man sit with them. Huckabee threatened to quit unless his guest was greeted warmly. A few members quit in protest, but the rest of the congregation went along. (The church is now integrated.)

As a boy in segregated Arkansas, Huckabee says he was deeply ashamed of Jim Crow laws. Caldwell, his friend from Boys State, recalls his friend "cringing" whenever someone told a racist joke. As a pastor, Huckabee sermonized about the failure of Christians to speak out forcefully against racism. In 1997, President Clinton and Governor Huckabee both gave emotional speeches in Little Rock at an event marking the 40th anniversary of Central High School's desegregation. Clinton, slipping into a preacherly cadence, moved the audience. But Huckabee moved many to tears: "Today we come to renounce … the fact that in many parts of the South, it was the white churches that helped not only ignore the problem of racism, but in many cases actually fostered those feelings and sentiments." He called on people of all faiths "to say never, never, never, never again will we be silent when people's rights are at stake."

Life in the church was comfortable and secure. But by the early '90s, Huckabee strongly felt the pull of politics. After a high-profile turn as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention—where he tried to take a moderate approach in furious theological brawls over Biblical interpretation and settled personal feuds between pastors—Huckabee made his decision. In 1992, he resigned from his church and ran for the U.S. Senate. "I had been growing restless and frustrated in the ministry," he writes in his book. As a young minister, he envisioned himself as "the captain of a warship leading God's troops into battle." Instead, he found that his flock "wanted me to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was having a good time."

Huckabee ran on a hard-right platform. (On a candidate questionnaire, the Associated Press reported last week, he advocated isolating AIDS patients. The campaign did not respond to a request for comment.) Huckabee lost. He was crushed. "I thought, 'Why?' " he told the parishoners at New Beginnings. Months later, he got his answer. The post of Arkansas lieutenant governor opened up. Political supporters asked him to run and he won a long-shot campaign, making him the Republican No. 2 to Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. Three years later Tucker was indicted and then convicted on charges related to the Whitewater scandal. Huckabee was governor. He says he knows now why he lost his Senate race: God had other plans for him.

Democrats expected the worst of their new evangelical, Republican governor, who welcomed anti-abortion activists to the mansion and tried to pass a law outlawing gays and lesbians from adopting children. But they discovered that Huckabee's "do unto others" world view also led him to push for more money for schools and a health-care program for poor children that became a model for other states. When he took office, he found that the state's roadways were falling apart. Huckabee supported controversial legislation that would raise gas taxes to fix them. Some of his fellow Republicans were furious, but voters went along. Huckabee served out his first term and was re-elected twice by wide margins. Even as a Republican in fractious Democratic Arkansas, he maintained approval ratings in the high 50s.

Arkansas voters saw the funny, down-to-earth Huckabee. Political pros who tangled with him away from the cameras say the governor they dealt with was anything but easygoing. Republican state Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson says Huckabee has an explosive temper. He recalls one heated conversation with Huckabee about a health bill Hutchinson didn't want to support. Huckabee began screaming at him, and banged his fists on his desk so hard that "trinkets started falling off." Asked if he was thin-skinned, Huckabee conceded that "early on, when I was in my first session, I think I was far more sensitive. You are going to find a lot of state legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, who are more than willing to tell you what a lousy human being I am ... It was never my desire to be a member of the club, to be chummy and get along with everyone and have these guys love me. My job was to be governor."

Jim Hendren, the state's Senate minority whip, says he gave up trying to debate issues with Huckabee. "It was like you became the enemy," he says. "There wasn't ever a negotiation. It was, 'It's going to be my way or else'."

Huckabee also had a habit of calling his political detractors nasty names. In an e-mail, he likened journalist Max Brantley of the liberal Arkansas Times to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Huckabee complained the Times covered him unfairly. To retaliate, he stopped talking to the paper's reporters and refused to send them press releases.

Likewise, when some GOP activists branded him "Tax Hike Mike," Huckabee fired back, labeling them "Shiite Republicans." Huckabee is adamant that the party's fervent belief in the wisdom of tax cuts is not just economically misguided but morally wrong. Tax cuts for the rich, he writes in his most recent book, "From Hope to Higher Ground," "makes a false and callous assumption that the poorest people in our nation—with inadequate salaries, lack of nutritious food, substandard housing and nonexistent or underfunded health care—can somehow afford to patiently wait while someone else's wealth eventually splashes onto them."

Huckabee also finds himself struggling to explain his views on illegal immigration. He says he's in favor of a border fence and opposes driver's licenses for undocumented workers. But he has been attacked for a bill he unsuccessfully pushed that would have allowed illegal immigrants to apply for in-state tuition at Arkansas colleges. At the CNN-YouTube debate in Florida last month, Huckabee made an emotional plea for tolerance: "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that."

Another problem for Huckabee could be questions about the many pardons and clemencies he granted to Arkansas criminals. Some law-and-order Republicans have said Huckabee let his desire to be forgiving get in the way of his judgment as governor. One case—reminiscent of the Willie Horton episode that hurt Michael Dukakis's White House campaign—is especially problematic. In 1999, Wayne DuMond, a convicted rapist, was released from prison by the Arkansas parole board. DuMond was a well-known criminal in the state. In 1984, he had brutally assaulted a 17-year-old girl who was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton's. Before DuMond's trial, masked men attacked him and cut off his testicles, leaving him bleeding on the floor. His assailants were never caught, but DuMond's testicles wound up on display on an Arkansas sheriff's desk, floating in a jar of formaldehyde. (The sheriff, who wasn't charged with any wrongdoing, was later removed from office.)

DuMond was given life in prison, a sentence some believed was excessive, especially given the brutality of the attack against him. In 1992, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker commuted DuMond's sentence to 39½ years, making him eligible for parole. DuMond was still in prison when Huckabee took over as governor. In 1999, DuMond won his release. The next year he was arrested again for sexually assaulting and murdering another woman. DuMond died in prison as he awaited trial.

Arkansans were outraged that DuMond had been released and blamed Huckabee. The governor believed that DuMond had found God in prison and, soon after taking office, had announced he intended to commute DuMond's sentence to time served. Huckabee said he ultimately never took action in the case. The state parole board had voted to let DuMond go. But several members of the board said that Huckabee had pressured them to sign DuMond's release papers at a meeting in 1996. Huckabee recalls that it was just a general meet-and-greet, and the subject of DuMond happened to come up. But board member Charles Chastain tells NEWSWEEK THAT, at the meeting, Huckabee cleared all the staff from the room and made a personal plea for DuMond's release. "I think he's a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who got a raw deal," Chastain recalls Huckabee's saying. He says the meeting is still "pretty vivid in my mind." Huckabee says he doesn't remember saying that and denies he pressured the board to release DuMond. "If that's really true, if I squeezed them and they did something against their conscience, it says as much about them as it would about me," he says.

The issue is now surfacing again. Families of DuMond's victims are vowing to campaign against Huckabee. Last week in Iowa, a mysterious anti-Huckabee group calling itself Iowans for Some Semblance of Christian Decency slipped anti-Huckabee fliers under the doors of hotel rooms where reporters were staying. The fliers cited Huckabee's "arm twisting" in the DuMond case and declared TRUE JUSTICE ELUDES MR. HUCKABEE.

Talking his way out of predicaments like these may turn out to be the least of Huckabee's worries. The moralist candidate who has made character the foundation of his campaign is having a far harder time explaining away persistent questions about his alleged ethics lapses as governor. During his time in the statehouse, Huckabee faced 16 ethics complaints that resulted in $1,000 in fines for failing to properly report outside income and payments from his campaign fund. He was also investigated—but never admonished—for using state aircraft for personal and political travel.

But no complaint was more controversial than his involvement with a secretive nonprofit group called Action America. In 1994, a group of Huckabee supporters set up Action America to help the new lieutenant governor advance his political career. At the time, Huckabee was broke. He'd spent everything he had on his failed Senate race. His new job paid just $24,000 a year. During Huckabee's time as lieutenant governor, the group raised $119,916. Of that, according to tax returns, $71,500 was paid directly to Huckabee as payment for speeches and traveling expenses. When the press discovered the fund, Huckabee refused to disclose the names of Action America's donors—oddly claiming at the time that doing so would somehow violate federal law.

"It's not like there was something nefarious going on," Huckabee tells NEWSWEEK. "It was an upfront, legitimate effort to travel around and drive up interest in politics." In fact, there was a bit more to it than that. Two of Action America's directors, J. J. Vigneault and Greg Graves—both former Huckabee political consultants—tell NEWSWEEK that the group was substantially funded by one source: R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco giant. Vigneault and Graves—who were both also R.J. Reynolds consultants—say the company hoped to use Huckabee's political skills to drum up grass-roots opposition to the national health-care plan then being pushed by First Lady Hillary Clinton. The idea was that Huckabee would fly around the country persuading evangelicals to come out against the Clinton proposal, which included a cigarette tax. The two Action directors say Reynolds pitched in $40,000, making it the fund's largest contributor. Vigneault, a Little Rock lobbyist who served as one of Huckabee's chief strategists, says the idea for the group was hatched in the Admirals Club of the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, where Huckabee had mentioned his financial troubles to Vigneault. Vigneault says the group was incorporated in Texas because "we didn't want anybody to find out about it."

Huckabee tells NEWSWEEK that there was nothing illegal about Action America and that he reported the income on his disclosure forms. "I fully complied with every bit of the law," he says. He insists he had "no idea" where the funds came from. "I don't even know who all the donors were." He specifically says he did not know anything about the tobacco money. Yet Vigneault says some of the details of the fund were worked out at a meeting with a Reynolds executive that took place inside Huckabee's Little Rock apartment: "Hell, Huckabee had some ideas. He thought we needed to play up that this was the first step to socialized medicine." Comically, Vigneault says Huckabee made the tobacco exec step outside to have a smoke. (R.J. Reynolds did not return calls seeking comment.)

Huckabee, choosing his words with Clintonian precision, says he doesn't remember a thing about the alleged get-together in his apartment: "I don't recall those meetings. I'm not saying they never happened. But I don't have any recollection of them," he tells NEWSWEEK. "If they can show me pictures of me there, that might help." He insists that none of the speeches funded by Action America had anything to do with tobacco. "They sure didn't get anything out of me," he says. Graves, who was president of Action America, says he was "incredulous" to hear that Huckabee denied knowing where the money came from. "I don't know how he could have not known," he says.

Huckabee and Vigneault eventually had a falling-out once the governor dropped 110 pounds, began running marathons and started a public-health crusade. Vigneault and his tobacco client were disappointed when Huckabee signed a statewide ban on smoking in the workplace. "I just felt like he was betraying some of the people who helped him when he needed it," Vigneault says.

If Huckabee's campaign continues to gain strength, he can count on hearing other unwelcome voices from the past. "You'll find plenty of people who will say I was the sorriest thing that sucked air into lungs," he says. But that's just politics. For now, he's focusing all his attention on winning Iowa. Last Monday, after word broke that Huckabee had topped Romney in a new Des Moines Register poll, the former governor took a tour of a finance company in that city. Overnight, his entourage of reporters and photographers had tripled. The swarm was so big that it overtook the narrow hallways and forced the firm's astonished employees to flatten themselves against the wall to avoid getting crushed. Boom mikes bumped pricey artwork. A cameraman, walking backward as he filmed the candidate, knocked a glass door off its hinges.

Huckabee was his usual jovial self, cracking jokes and putting well-wishers at ease. But there are still signs that Huckabee's underfunded, understaffed campaign hasn't yet caught up with its own poll numbers. The next day, when a reporter asked Huckabee to comment on the big news of the day—an intelligence report that indicated Iran had halted its nuclear program—the candidate shook his head and admitted he hadn't even heard of it. He blamed it on 20-hour campaign days that don't always leave time to read the newspaper. The episode led to chatter among his Iowa supporters that, much as they like him, they worry he won't get his act together—and keep it together—before the Jan. 3 caucuses. Huckabee doesn't seem that worried. At a stop that day, he once again mentioned the parable of the two fish and five loaves. As a candidate, he holds fast to his pastor's belief that, somehow, God will provide.