It's hard not to like Mike Huckabee. Next to his better known, better-funded rivals—Mitt Romney, a candidate so carefully groomed and scripted that he can appear synthetic; or Rudy Giuliani, whose prosecutor's impatience seems to simmer just beneath his skin—Huckabee comes across as an easygoing, down-to-earth guy. The former Arkansas governor is self-deprecating, approachable and genuinely funny. He plays electric bass in a rock band. He tells aw-shucks stories about his boyhood in rural Arkansas. A former Southern Baptist preacher, he's a natural orator who speaks without notes, and after giving a speech he'll happily hang around for hours chatting with whoever hap-pens to come up to him. "I'm a conservative," he likes to say, "but I'm not mean about it."
As his opponents attack one another on the campaign trail, Huckabee has largely held back. A lot of candidates in his position—he lags behind the front runners in money and the polls—would try to be provocative, make some noise to get attention. But Huckabee has been content to play the role of the B- or C-tier candidate, convinced that the top contenders would rough up each other enough to turn off voters, who would then give him a second look. That's just what seems to be happening. In recent weeks, Huckabee's campaign has surged a bit. He jumped to 7 percent in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, up from just 2 percent in August. In all-important Iowa, he is now running a close second to Mitt Romney.
Huckabee doesn't owe his new success to expensive TV spots or marathon campaign outings. Unlike Romney, who has practically made Iowa his second home and has spent millions on radio and TV ads, Huckabee has visited the state just three times since August. His state campaign headquarters is a low-rent storefront in downtown Des Moines. Huckabee seems to be gaining in the polls almost in spite of himself. (His eight-person Iowa staff seems overwhelmed. His top guy in the state, buried under a barrage of media requests, demurs: "I'm not so good with this e-mail stuff.") Hillary Clinton doesn't think twice about raking in $2 million in a night of fund-raising. Until last week Huckabee had raised a little more than $2 million—total. Huckabee tries to turn that to his advantage: he's not rich or slick. He's a regular guy, the sort you wouldn't mind seeing on TV for the next four or eight years.
Yet until now, Huckabee has had it easy. He hasn't had to respond to an attack from another candidate (no one has bothered). Nor has he been the subject of critical stories by the national media (which treats him as an amiable oddity). He hasn't been pressed about his shortcomings, most notably his lack of foreign-policy experience. He struggles with weighty international problems, including terrorism and Iraq—concerns at the top of voters' minds.
Still, a good showing in Iowa could make him a contender, especially if it propels him into New Hampshire, the first primary. Already, people are taking him seriously as a possible veep pick. His solid social-conservative credentials could provide cover for a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights East Coaster like Giuliani. The former New York mayor, who in the past didn't pay Huckabee any attention at all, now says he has "great respect" for him. Huckabee has returned the favor: on the campaign trail, he's stopped saying GOP voters won't nominate a Republican who supports abortion rights. Asked if he'd consider running as Giuliani's running mate, Huckabee politely declined to answer in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK.
Huckabee isn't ready to settle for No. 2 just yet. He's never been one to doubt his own abilities. Growing up in Hope, Ark.—for Huckabee, it's Bill Clinton who's the "other guy" from Hope—Huckabee was popular and a good student. At home, money was tight. His father was a mechanic and his mother a clerk at the local gas company, and they sometimes took on extra work to make the rent on their tiny house near the railroad tracks.
Twice a week, no exceptions, the Huckabees could be found in the pews at the local Baptist church. Young Mike learned the Bible, which he says he still takes literally. (He has said he does not believe in the theory of evolution.) As a kid in the late '60s, though, Huckabee was more interested in music and sports. He jammed with friends on his front porch, plucking bass lines to Rolling Stones tunes. When Huckabee was in fifth grade, he stumbled into his first career. A broken finger left him benched in the Little League dugout, so he wandered up to the press booth to watch the game. When the announcer for the local AM radio station didn't show up, the station manager asked Huckabee if he'd call the game. He did well enough that the manager told him to come and see him when he was 14. Three years later Huckabee showed up for work. Among his buddies, he became a celebrity. "He was on the radio," says Lester Sitzes, a longtime friend. "How many kids could do that? But I guess we weren't surprised. People like him. They always liked Mike."
Huckabee's friends assumed he'd go into politics because of his natural speaking skills. Instead, he surprised everyone by announcing he was going to study theology at nearby Ouachita Baptist University, with hopes of entering the clergy. He says he felt a calling to the pulpit. "Some people thought he was crazy," says Sitzes. "They thought he was throwing his life away … just being some church preacher."
After his first year in college, Huckabee married his high-school girlfriend, Janet McCain. Along with a full course load, he worked 40 hours a week at the local radio station and preached to a small congregation on Sundays. The newlyweds lived on peanut-butter sandwiches and Campbell's soup. "We would alternate between Chicken Noodle and Chicken and Stars," Janet Huckabee says. The couple had a bad scare when Janet needed emergency surgery to remove a massive tumor on her spine. Doctors warned that even if she lived, she could wind up paralyzed or unable to have children. But the operation was a success, and they went on to have three kids.
After college, Huckabee took a job with the Texas evangelist James Robison, a contemporary of Billy Graham's. Robison immediately bought his rumpled prot?g? four new suits. "You're sharp," the preacher told him. "You need to look sharp." In 1980, as evangelicals were emerging as a political force, Huckabee helped put together a convention in Dallas where Christian conservatives met to discuss how they could influence the presidential race. The keynote speaker was Ronald Reagan. "It had a real impact on him," Robison recalls. "Huckabee saw the difference that people of faith can have in a profound way."
A few years later, Huckabee took the pulpit of a small but growing church in Pine Bluff, Ark., and started a Christian radio and TV station, which aired his Sunday sermons. One day a listener contacted him. He was a black teenager and was interested in attending services at Huckabee's church, but worried he wouldn't be welcome; Immanuel Baptist Church had been all white since its inception in the 1890s. "Of course you can come, I told him," Huckabee recalls.
The minister prepared his flock. "I hope that nobody has anything except warm feelings," he recalls telling them. "In fact, if he is not welcome, I don't want to be here either." The speech didn't go over well among some church elders, who threatened to fire him. Several members quit in protest. But most of his parishioners stood with him, and in the years that followed, the church slowly integrated. "I grew up with a lot of people who really resisted integration," Huckabee tells NEWSWEEK. "The more I listened to them, the more I became convinced that racism was an incredible evil." Rex Nelson, who worked for Huckabee when he was governor, says his racial awareness "comes from being raised poor … He knew what it was like to look up at other people who were looking down on him." (Huckabee later carried these lessons to the statehouse, where he pushed to end racial disparity in drug sentencing and urged compassion for the children of illegal immigrants—a position that put him at odds with some in his party.)
In 1989, Huckabee, then 34 years old, was elected the youngest-ever president of the Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention. Nothing prepared him for the elbows-out world of big-time Southern Baptist politics. When salvation is at stake, no one backs down without a fight. The convention was deadlocked over the issue of Biblical inerrancy. Conservatives insisted that Scripture was to be taken literally; others advocated a less-strict interpretation. Huckabee tried to have it both ways. He sided with the conservatives, but urged members to be tolerant of differing views. "I resent sometimes when we get on our high horses about what is right and wrong," he says. "I've always believed in grace. Who am I to cast judgment on someone else?"
It's the same careful, noncommittal approach he now takes when voters ask him about the touchy issue of the afterlife. Does he think nonbelievers are doomed to hell? "I don't know," he says. "Jesus can decide that." Huckabee clearly hopes believers and nonbelievers will hear different things in that answer, and both sides will go away pleased.
After Huckabee's trial by politics in the convention, he felt ready for the real thing. He ran for Senate in 1992, but lost. State Republicans urged him to run for lieutenant governor under Democrat Jim Guy Tucker, who became governor when Clinton was elected president. He was a long shot in the Democratic state. To his surprise, he won—but Democrats didn't welcome him. When he arrived for work, he found the door to his offices nailed shut from the inside. Huckabee soon got another surprise: in 1996, Tucker was indicted on felony charges related to the long-simmering Whitewater scandal. Huckabee became governor.
He disarmed many state Democrats, who found they couldn't hate him on every issue. Though he didn't water down his conservative beliefs to mollify his critics—he led an anti-abortion rally in Little Rock and backed a bill that would block gays and lesbians from adopting children—he often played against stereotype. He argued for new funding for school arts- and music-education programs and pushed an expensive health-care fund for poor kids. (Once obese, Huckabee lost 110 pounds while governor and traveled the state preaching the virtues of diet and exercise.) He urged a gas-tax hike to fix the state's crumbling highways, a move voters approved in a ballot measure. When the state Supreme Court ordered him to put more money into the state's failing schools, Huckabee raised the sales taxes to pay for it.
Huckabee says he had to do it; the court left him no choice. But a lot of Republicans in the state were livid. They dubbed him "Tax Hike Mike." Betsy Hagan, Arkansas chairman of the conservative Eagle Forum, says Huckabee is no small-government Republican. "He was a liberal when it came to taxes," she says. "He spent and spent." Huckabee says he cut taxes "90 times" as governor. But he is anything but a tax-cut zealot. In his campaign book, "From Hope to Higher Ground," he attacks Bush-like tax cuts for the rich, which he says are based on a "false and callous assumption that the poorest people in our nation … can somehow afford to patiently wait while someone else's wealth eventually splashes onto them."
Some Arkansas conservatives also tag him as soft on crime for supporting the controversial 1997 parole of Wayne Dumond, a convicted rapist who then raped and murdered another woman. Huckabee says he "feels terrible" about what happened, but is quick to note that he put more offenders to death than any other Arkansas governor. (He says he agonized over each one of them, and has been critical of "switch happy" governors.)
Another thing that could cause Huckabee trouble: lingering ethics accusations from his time in the governor's mansion. The state ethics commission formally admonished him five times for, among other things, unreported gifts and failing to properly disclose $43,000 in funds he received from his campaign. He was slammed in the Arkansas press for taking money for out-of- state speeches and accepting lavish gifts from supporters, including $20,000 worth of clothing from a friend in Little Rock. Huckabee is uncharacteristically prickly when asked about it. "The only thing I regret is disclosing more than I needed to," he says. End of subject.
Most of the time, Huckabee is a master at maintaining a placid exterior, even when he's delving into issues that are new to him as a politician. On matters of war and foreign policy, he recites the safe, standard Republican mantra of supporting the troops and defeating terrorists, and is critical of how the war has been conducted. He knows he'll need to do better if he hopes to make it as the nominee, or even as a plausible veep. For now, he defaults to the standard governor's response to criticism that a lack of experience could derail his campaign. If international expertise were a requirement for the Oval Office, he says, "Ronald Reagan wouldn't have been elected. Bill Clinton wouldn't have, either." Huckabee, ever politic, left another recent Republican governor, elected with limited foreign-policy credentials, off the list.