Alter: The Case for Huckabee

The GOP is in a deep hole and keeps digging. Even after Mike Huckabee won big among attendees at last week's "Values Voters Convention," many evangelicals have been telling the former Arkansas governor—and onetime Baptist minister—that they like him but won't back him because he can't beat Hillary Clinton. They have it exactly backward. He may be the only Republican candidate with a decent chance to beat the Democrats next November.

Huckabee? Yes, Huckabee.

To explain why, let's look at the shortcomings of the other Republican candidates first.

Rudy Giuliani's performance so far has turned the conventional wisdom about him on its head. It was assumed early on that he couldn't win the GOP nomination because of his position on social issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights, but that if he did his moderation would power him to victory in the general election. Now it looks as though he's got a strong chance for the nomination—despite his GOP rivals' best efforts to hammer him for being insufficiently conservative during Sunday night's debate—but would likely fail in November.

While Giuliani appears strong in his native Northeast, his recent pandering to the conservative base will make it hard for him to put states like New York and New Jersey in play. As Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania told Chris Matthews on "Hardball" last week, Giuliani's right-wing positions on Iraq, S-CHIP and the need for anti-abortion Supreme Court justices are all deeply unpopular in Blue States and would be hung around his neck next fall. Meanwhile, a pro-life third-party effort (a greater likelihood whenever Republicans nominate a pro-choice candidate for any major office) would strip away a few crucial points in key states. At a minimum, pro-lifers would stay home.

Most important, Giuliani is a dark candidate running on fear. Americans like light candidates running on hope. Since 1928 the United States has only once elected the darker candidate, Richard Nixon in 1968. But circumstances were quite different then. The unpopular war that year was a problem for the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey—whose "politics of joy" sounded lame in that crazy season. Nixon tried to lighten up in 1968 with the "new Nixon" (just as Giuliani is trying to smile more this year), but his victory and reelection in 1972 were triumphs of the dark side.

This time, Rudy would be forced into the Humphrey role, saddled with the incumbent president's baggage. Running in full-throated support of George Bush's war with Iraq (much less Iran) is not likely to be a crowd-pleaser. And his claim to possess greater experience than his rivals will likely fall flat, considering that no one has ever made it from city hall to the White House without serving in some other office in between. Six long years after 9/11, Rudy's "only thing we have to use is fear itself" strategy will work only if we're attacked again by terrorists. (In that case, of course, all bets are off.)

Mitt Romney at first seemed the most Reaganesque character in the Republican field. But he is running a transparently cynical campaign. (Cynicism can bring success, but only if you can't see it). His flip-flopping is so egregious he makes John Kerry seem like a paragon of principle, and the Democrats now have the money and discipline to exploit the opening. Romney, born in privilege and cosseted throughout his life by his church and corporate America, has no common touch. And his Mormonism would hurt him in some quarters in a general election.

Fred Thompson is not ready for prime time. Unless he gets real good real fast, he would be crushed by any Democrat. He made strides Sunday night—but he's not there yet.

John McCain would do better than the other three, but even if he somehow gets the nomination, he feels a bit like Bob Dole in 1996: an amusing war hero with a good heart and lots of friends in the press who is well past his sell-by date and gets pummeled by a Clinton.

That leaves Huckabee, whose shortage of funds will probably prevent him from being nominated. The schedule is so front-loaded this time that even an impressive showing on January 3 in Iowa (and he's running second there in some recent polls) won't bring him enough money to be fully competitive on Tsunami Tuesday, February 5. And many Republicans have gotten into the habit of viewing lack of money as a character flaw. His only hope is that party leaders come to their senses and recognize that he's their best bet.

Huckabee comes across more hopeful than Giuliani, more believable than Romney, more intelligent than Thompson and fresher than McCain. He would hold the base and capture moderates drawn to his down-home style. His greatest asset is that he alone among the Republicans "speaks American." He connects to his audience with stories and metaphors and a geniality that can't be faked. "I'm conservative but I'm not angry about it," he likes to say, and it's true; his gentle mocking of the intraparty warfare that broke out during the Fox debate—likening it to a "demolition derby"—confirms the point. This was Reagan's secret, and it worked for Huckabee in Arkansas, where he won the votes of independents and Democrats.

The rap on Huckabee is that while he can speak fluently on global affairs, he has no foreign-policy chops. But that might be an advantage in November. Because he lacks Washington experience, Huckabee is the GOP candidate least tied to Iraq, which will remain an albatross for any Republican. And unless you believe 9/11 "changed everything" for American voters (if so, how do you explain 2006?), this election may revert to the norm, which means an emphasis on pocketbook issues. In the Detroit debate on the economy earlier this month, only Huckabee spoke with any passion about the millions of voters left out of the economic expansion. It's trendy now for Republicans to talk about their fiscal principles, but belt-tightening and fealty to Wall Street have never won a presidential election.

Voters in general elections are less ideological than in primaries and more intrigued by a compelling personal narrative. Huckabee's story hits closer to home than any other. After chest pains and a diagnosis of diabetes, he lost more than 100 pounds with diet and exercise. He tells the story with wit and grace (as well as the one about his wife's cancer diagnosis many years ago) and would kill on Oprah. When Huckabee talks about broader health-care issues he does more than brag about Arkansas's success under his leadership. He speaks in a folksy and comprehensible way that would match up well against Hillary's facts and figures or Obama's abstractions. The same holds true on education; his support for large-scale federal support of art and music programs to improve creativity (and thus competitiveness in the global economy) would resonate with millions of voters.

Even on faith and politics, Mike is easy to like. From afar he seemed extreme because he raised his hand in a debate when the candidates were asked en masse if they believed in evolution. But when Bill Maher pressed him to justify that view on his HBO show, Huckabee responded with a nuanced and presentable discussion of the origins of the universe that seemed to pacify even the atheist host. (I found this as well when we discussed the subject some months ago.) He has surely said some wacky right-wing things that could be used against him, but no more than any of the others in the Republican field. (He said in the debate that "most" of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were clergymen; only a couple were.)

The stridency of today's GOP has blinded the party to the context of this election, which is Bush fatigue. No wonder all the Democrats are using some variation of the line "The era of cowboy diplomacy is over." It is. And the least cowboyish and bombastic Republican will have the best chance a year from now to win the White House. That's Mike Huckabee.