Why Can't Mike Huckabee Catch Fire?

Mike Huckabee is in an unusual situation for a politician. He doesn't have to pander to his base. A former Southern Baptist preacher, he starts his 2008 presidential bid well to the right of his party's most serious contenders. His long-held pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-gay marriage agenda would seem to be music to the ears of conservatives unhappy with the fact that social-issue moderates like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and (at least until recently) Mitt Romney are hogging the headlines. So why isn't the governor of Arkansas and current Republican presidential candidate, stuck around two percent in recent polls, catching fire among religious conservatives? Huckabee has a plan to fix that—and it starts with this interview. NEWSWEEK's Susannah Meadows talked with the other guy from a place called Hope about gays, hell and donuts.

NEWSWEEK: You recently lost more than 100 pounds. Are the people you meet on the campaign trail more interested in talking about your weight than policy?
It certainly is a point of fascination. It's one of the rare times a politician enjoys talking about losing. It also segues into talking about not only the health issue, but the fact that 80% of Americans' health-care costs are caused by chronic disease. And most of that is due to over-eating, under-exercising, smoking.

Would you put America on a diet?
A lot of people want this to be a simple solution: more P.E., less vending machines. There is an entire cultural shift that has to take place. What has to happen is that we change from a culture of disease to a culture of health. The government can't do it for people, but there is a role government can play. In Arkansas, we created incentives. For example, you got discounts on health insurance if you didn't smoke. [In this country] smokers can take breaks and smoke on company time. If you want to exercise, we say you do that on your lunch hour. People who are healthy pay high premiums for those who are not. There's no incentive in the system.

I heard fried Twinkies used to be one of your favorite foods. Do ever indulge anymore?
The food that I used to crave, the amazing thing is, I often find it repulsive. Something dripping in grease, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, I would be better off eating the sack it came in.' I don't walk by the donut counter anymore and go into withdrawal.

On paper, you ought to be leading the pack among evangelical voters. But we keep hearing the leaders of the religious right expressing unhappiness with the GOP field. Why aren't you cleaning up?
I think in time I will. A lot of them don't even know me or know that I'm in the race. That can be fixed with enough interviews like this. The second thing is because so much of the focus has been on Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and, to a lesser extent, Mitt Romney, a lot of voters think those are the only choices.

Is it possible voters don't think you're electable?
There are those people who say I'd love to be behind you but I'm not sure you're going to have enough money, therefore I'm not sure you'll get elected. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if you elect someone you don't agree with, what's the point?

So how do you head off the self-fulfilling prophecy?
Continuing to be on my feet, keeping the message going. At some point this race will become about the message. It wasn't that long ago that you heard Phil Gramm had all the money [former GOP Sen. Gramm of Texas raised a substantial warchest for his 1996 White House bid, but exited the race early]. A year ago people said it was Bill Frist or George Allen. Neither one is in the race.

What do you make of candidates like Giuliani, Romney and McCain—all of whom have moved to the right on social issues?
The first thing is: imitation is the most serious form of flattery. Some are having a late adult moment to come to a position I've held since I've been a teenager. Voters will have to determine if they're seeing the politics of conviction or convenience.

Evangelicals are starting to split over the issue of global warming. Some argue it's a moral imperative, while others worry focusing on climate change dilutes the more traditional social-issues agenda. Do you want to make stopping global warming a central cause?
I don't try to get into the middle of the science of global warming.

But do you believe there's a human role in climate change?
There may be. But whether there is or there isn't, it doesn't release us from the responsibility to be good stewards of the environment. It's the old boy scout rule: you leave your campsite in as good or better shape than how you found it. It's a spiritual issue. [The earth] belongs to God. I have no right to destroy it. I think we work toward alternative energy sources. [We need to make it] like the Manhattan Project or going to the moon. We need to accelerate our energy independence.

Studies have shown that divorce rates among conservative Christians are at least as high, or even higher than among their non-Christian counterparts. How do you explain that?
People of faith tend to get married, rather than cohabitate. When their relationships don't work out, it's a busted marriage. It doesn't excuse the fact that the divorce rate is unacceptably out of control. We still live in a culture where it's easier to get out of a marriage than to stay in one.

But that doesn't explain why the rate is higher among Christians.
Christians have high expectations, higher sometimes than others. I think there's a shallow understanding of the purpose of marriage. The purpose is to know how to love sacrificially. Are you putting in what you promised you would?

The Rev. Billy Graham's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, once told me about how when she preached at a major Baptist event, the audience turned its back on her. You used to be head of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Do you agree that women shouldn't be allowed to be preachers?
It would seem so rude, no matter what a person thought about the structure of a church, to do that. That's not Christian behavior. One of the unique things about Baptists—every church is its own autonomous unit. My attitude is, let each church make that decision. I go to a church in Little Rock. A lot of people think we're strange. We don't fit the mold of a traditional sit-there-stiffly-in-the-pews-church. We don't even have pews. We focus on ministering to people who are poor. We feed hundreds of kids every week. Our church has offered line-dancing lessons to get people to come. You can be a person off the street with more metal in your mouth than a GM car has on its exterior.

Are you personally against women being preachers?
I'd rather speak up for the Lord than not. I let each person in each church deal with their own conscience. I have enough of a challenge being obedient to God in my own life than to try to dictate to someone else. It's not an issue for me.

Do you believe that gays are going to hell?
No. I don't know that Baptists would make a statement that anyone goes to hell based on sexual orientation. Heaven is about one's personal faith and therefore it has to do with one's relationship to Jesus, not someone's relationship to someone else.

I ask because you've made a comment about the openly gay congressman, Barney Frank, that sounded pejorative. [Addressing Iowa's Christian Alliance, Huckabee said: "In our lifetimes, we've seen our country go from 'Leave It to Beaver' to 'Beavis and Butt-head,' from Barney Fife to Barney Frank, from 'Father Knows Best' to television shows where father knows nothing."]
It wasn't intended about same-sex lifestyle. He epitomizes as far left as you can get, far away from the Main Street American way of life.

When you were governor of Arkansas, you reported receiving $112,000 in gifts, including $23,000 in clothes from a state appointee. Those must have been some clothes.
That was over a period of a long time. There's a guy here in Little Rock, who's a friend of mine, long before I was governor. He doesn't know to do anything in moderation. He gave me several suits and my wife, clothing and stuff. It wasn't as big a deal. But because I was being honest, I would report it. If people brought donuts to the office, I would report it as a gift.

You then tried to have removed the ceiling on how many presents you could get. Definitely a bold move.
What we tried to do is that we should prohibit nothing and report everything. The law said that you couldn't receive a gift that's a quid pro quo. Well that's pretty obvious. I thought the law lacked clarity. I was on a campaign trip and a lady came up and handed me a quillow, which is a quilt that folds into a pillow. I reported it as a gift. I reported the value at $65. This newspaper that's been careful to check everything I do called her and asked what she thought it was worth. She said, oh, $200. The editor of the paper filed an ethics complaint. I said, "Good gosh, I sent the gift back to her. I didn't ask for it!" It's so she could brag to all her friends: "Hey, the governor is sitting on the quilt I gave him at the Razorback game!" I don't mind getting in trouble if I've tried to hide or shield something. But the fact that some lady I don't even know hands an aide some quilt, it was absurd.

You have a lot in common with Bill Clinton. You both come from Hope, Ark., and went on to be governors of the state. What do you think of him and Hillary?
I have a rather different point of view on Bill Clinton [than others have]. We're dramatically different, in lifestyle etc. But I don't hate this man. Whether you liked him or not, give him credit for being a kid who came out of a dysfunctional family and an obscure town to become president. Don't take that away from him, because if you do, you take that away from every kid who grew up on the other side of the tracks. I want that kid to grow up saying, "by golly, I'm going to be president, I'm going to be a PhD, I'm going to be a nuclear physicist.

Were you that kid, saying you wanted to be president?
I don't know that I ever said, "I'm going to be president." I knew that I could live beyond where I grew up. I was the first male [in my family] to graduate high school. No one upstream from me had ever done that as a male.

I understand you carry a concealed weapon. Is it on you right now?
No. You're safe.

Have you ever drawn it?
Oh no. Those of us who've grown up with firearms—I hunt and understand guns—I think we have a far healthier respect for them than the person who didn't grow up around them. This idea of people with concealed carry being gun-waving cowboys? That's nonsense.

When you were governor of Arkansas, you pushed through an initiative that provided basic health insurance for children of the working poor. Would you push for a similar result on the national level? What about universal health care? Would you raise taxes to do it?
I don't think we have to raise taxes. The problem is when people think the answer is universal health care. The issue is universal health. We do need a broader coverage, but it can't be everything you want any time you want it. We have universal health care for acute trauma. We don't have universal insurance coverage for everybody. It would bankrupt us under the current system. What we need a system is where everyone has skin in the game, personal responsibility, where there are incentives for healthy behavior and for management of one's health-care expenses.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
There's one issue I want to touch on. A key element of education is music and art education. It's not expendable, extracurricular or extraneous. The future economy of America is going to be a creative economy. I am very passionate about it. Math, science and language scores improve dramatically when the student has music skills. Spatial reasoning is enhanced by music instructions. It is who we are. It defines us as a culture and a civilization. Very few people my age are still playing tackle football, but I'm still playing bass guitar in a rock-and-roll band.