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Huckabee breaks the GOP mold with idiosyncratic stands

Times Staff Writer

In 2005, a Republican state senator named Jim Holt introduced a bill to deny public benefits to Arkansas’ soaring population of illegal immigrants. Holt, a Southern Baptist minister, figured it was a rock-solid conservative idea -- a matter, he said, “of right and wrong.”

Arkansas’ governor at the time was also a professed conservative, and also a Southern Baptist minister. But Mike Huckabee had only scorn for his fellow Republican’s proposal.

Huckabee called the bill “race-baiting” and “demagoguery,” and argued that the denial of health services could harm innocent children. The bill, Huckabee said, did not conform with his take on Christian values.

“I drink a different kind of Jesus juice,” Huckabee said.

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Today, Huckabee is seeking the Republican nomination for president, and voters nationwide are getting to know a different kind of candidate: He is the Southern preacher who favors droll wit over brimstone sermonizing, a rock ‘n’ roll bass player who believes in creationism, with an Oprah-ready story about a 110-pound weight loss that probably saved his life.

Here in Arkansas, where Huckabee ruled as governor for 10 1/2 years, voters grew accustomed to a different brand of Republican -- a governor with an idiosyncratic agenda that was sometimes difficult to categorize, but always driven, Huckabee insists, by his Southern Baptist faith. That faith influenced major policy decisions that could be deemed moderate, if not liberal, including a significant environmental initiative and a vastly expanded healthcare plan for low-income children.

Though Huckabee took strong stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, his record on taxes -- a key pillar of Republican orthodoxy -- was distinctly heterodox. He supported tax hikes on cigarettes, gasoline, groceries, sales and income. A video circulating on YouTube -- and played, in part, on the CNN-YouTube Republican debate Wednesday -- shows Huckabee addressing the Arkansas Legislature in 2003 and suggesting that he would be open to raising a broad range of taxes.

Initiatives like the children’s health plan tapped a deep vein of populism, helping Huckabee win two gubernatorial elections. But his record on taxes and immigration alienated some Arkansas Republicans, who are watching with trepidation as Huckabee’s prospects soar in the GOP primary race for president.

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The most recent Des Moines Register poll, published today, showed Huckabee overtaking former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (Huckabee’s 29%-to-24% lead in the Register’s poll is within the margin of error, but it’s a huge advance from his tie for sixth place in the same poll in the spring.) Other surveys showed him gaining ground against former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in Florida.

Holt, the former state senator, has a warning for conservatives around the country who think they have found their candidate.

“I think if they knew [his record] it would totally de-energize them,” he said. " . . . His policies are just wrong.”

In a phone interview, Huckabee, 52, asserted that he left Arkansas a stronger state when term limits forced him out of office in January -- with improved highways, more accountable schools, low unemployment, and an $800-million budget surplus. He also stood by his conservative credentials.

“I’d put mine against anybody’s on that Republican stage,” he said.

His achievements were won in the face of an often-vigorous Democratic opposition that controlled the Legislature throughout his governorship. At times it seemed he was “getting it from both sides,” said Ann Clemmer, a Republican and Huckabee supporter who teaches political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “I think he did a lot just on his own -- really on his own counsel. And in that regard I think you have to say he was a leader.”

Huckabee hails from President Clinton’s hometown of Hope, and his political career has played out in Clinton’s shadow. In 1993, voters narrowly elected Huckabee to replace Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who succeeded to the governorship when Clinton was elected president. Huckabee became governor three years later, when Tucker resigned after being found guilty of two felonies as part of the Whitewater investigation involving the business dealings of Bill and Hillary Clinton and others.

To observers like Rex Nelson, a former political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Huckabee represented a welcome change.

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“I think everybody wanted some calm, some stability,” said Nelson, who signed on as Huckabee’s press secretary in 1996 and served for nine years.

Arkansans eventually turned their attention away from Whitewater and the Clintons, and toward the teetotaling preacher who had once led Baptist congregations in Pine Bluff and Texarkana. Then, as now, Huckabee put his religious convictions front and center. Early on, he developed a mode of governing that seemed to be both expedient and from the heart.

Political consultant Dick Morris, who also worked for Bill Clinton, advised Huckabee in his first race for lieutenant governor. He told Huckabee that to succeed in Arkansas, he should avoid acting like a “country club” Republican who only represented the rich.

Morris also recalled saying to Huckabee: “I assume you’re against parole for violent criminals, because you’re a conservative.” Huckabee told Morris that he would hold open the possibility of parole because he believed, in some cases, in the power of forgiveness, Morris said.

To Morris, such attitudes make Huckabee a new kind of religious candidate -- one who is “a New Testament conservative, in addition to an Old Testament one.”

“He puts all of the Bible into play,” Morris said. “It’s not just ‘thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not,’ but it’s the positive aspects of his religion, too -- which is ‘love thy neighbor,’ and ‘when I was naked you clothed me,’ and a sense of helping poor people.”

Shortly after he became governor, Huckabee expressed his support for the release of a convicted rapist -- who, once freed, sexually assaulted another woman and killed her. Wayne Dumond had been sentenced to life plus 20 years in 1984 for raping a 17-year-old cheerleader. Tucker, Huckabee’s predecessor, reduced Dumond’s sentence in 1992, making him eligible for parole.

In 1996, according to the Democrat-Gazette, Huckabee questioned Dumond’s guilt and said he might commute his sentence to time served. He also met with the parole board in a closed session. Some board members have said Huckabee pressured them into releasing Dumond; others said he did not.

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Dumond was released from prison in October 1999. He chose his next victim 11 months later.

Huckabee’s Democratic opponent, Jimmie Lou Fisher, seized on the issue in the 2002 governor’s race, and Dumond’s first victim campaigned on Fisher’s behalf. Huckabee’s campaign ran ads blaming his predecessor for commuting the sentence. Fisher was considered a weak candidate; Huckabee was reelected with 53% of the vote.

In other instances, Huckabee’s political instincts seemed sharper. Soon after taking office, he began to lobby strongly for a one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund state parks and conservation efforts. The measure required the approval of voters, and Huckabee, an avid outdoorsman, advertised the effort by touring the Arkansas River on his bass boat -- a public relations gambit that garnered significant positive press for both the governor and the measure, which voters approved in 1996.

The tax has generated more than $400 million. Arkansas created a 4,800-acre prairie conservation center, built four nature centers and upgraded its parks.

But Huckabee also referred to environmentalists as “environmental wackos.” Glen Hooks, regional representative for the state Sierra Club chapter and a former head of the state Democratic Party, said that Huckabee’s environmental record was weak overall.

As a presidential candidate, however, Huckabee talks about being “a good steward to the Earth” and argues that Christians have a duty to fight global warming.

“If he’s coming around now, I’m encouraged,” Hooks said.

Huckabee also latched on early to the idea of expanding government health insurance to cover children of working-class people who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid. The Arkansas plan, called ARKids First, was a forerunner to the federal government’s State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Huckabee introduced it to the Legislature in January 1997. It received bipartisan support, and Huckabee became its biggest advocate. He signed the bill into law with a crayon, surrounded by children. He then made TV ads encouraging families to sign up.

Rhonda Sanders of the nonprofit group Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families said the results had been dramatic. According to a report by the University of Minnesota, the percentage of uninsured children in Arkansas dropped from 22% in 1997 to 9% in 2004 -- the largest percentage-point drop of any state in the nation.

As Huckabee’s stock rises in the Republican primaries, conservatives are looking closely at his record on taxes. The Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group, has been running ads against Huckabee, harshly criticizing his record and portraying him as “Tax-Hike Mike.”’

Huckabee has responded by calling the group the “Club for Greed.” He says that in addition to supporting tax increases as governor, he also called for a $90.6-million cut in income taxes -- and other smaller, more narrowly targeted tax cuts. He defends his record as that of a pragmatic governor trying to meet the needs of a poor, underdeveloped state.

More recently, Huckabee has veered back toward the party line: He signed a no-tax-hike pledge that had been presented to the candidates by Americans for Tax Reform, another conservative group. Grover Norquist, its president, said Huckabee’s pledge would carry more weight if he disavowed his past decisions to raise taxes.

“I am pleased he has made a commitment not to raise taxes in the future,” said Norquist. “I would feel better if he spoke of his previous record as a mistake. Instead he defends it.”

During his years in office, the media scrutinized numerous mini-scandals, including an allegation that he used public funds for private purposes, and failed to properly report gifts and income. Huckabee was cited five times for violating ethics rules by the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

Toward the beginning of Huckabee’s governorship, the Arkansas Times, an alternative weekly, reported that his family had used a fund meant for upkeep of the governor’s mansion for expenses like out-of-town trips and dry-cleaning.

As he was preparing to leave office, local media reported that bridal registries had been established at two stores for the governor and his wife, even though they had been married for more than 30 years. State ethics laws prohibited Huckabee from receiving gifts of more than $100 as a reward for doing his job. But there was an exception for wedding presents. The Huckabees had registered for nearly $7,000 in housewares as they prepared to move to a private residence.

Arkansas Times Executive Editor Max Brantley -- a longtime nemesis of Huckabee’s -- said Huckabee’s ethics violations and other gaffes probably stemmed from his preacher’s background, in which “love offerings,” or gifts to the pastor, were encouraged.

Huckabee said he was unfairly targeted by liberals who tried to turn the slightest mistake into a scandal. He noted that one of his ethics infractions was failing to report as a gift a blanket a woman gave him to keep warm at the 2002 Cotton Bowl.

Arkansas voters will have a chance to make up their mind about Huckabee’s record yet again -- and judge that record against his rhetoric as a presidential candidate. Despite vetoing Holt’s anti-immigration bill in 2005, Huckabee today is running as a staunch foe of illegal immigration. “No open borders, no amnesty, no sanctuary, no false Social Security numbers, no driver’s licenses for illegals,” his website states.

Lane Pope, 42, a conservative rancher from rural Howard County, didn’t complain about Huckabee’s stance on immigration. Instead, he griped about the higher taxes he paid under Huckabee that cut into margins on the farm.

Still, Pope plans to vote for Huckabee for president, offering the two judgments that the candidate would probably be most pleased to hear these days: “He seemed to be a good guy,” Pope said, adding that overall, “he ran the state in a conservative-type way.”

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Michael Dale Huckabee

Hometown: North Little Rock, Ark.

Born: Hope, Ark., Aug. 24, 1955

Family: Wife, Janet; three children

Religion: Southern Baptist

Education: Ouachita Baptist University, B.A., 1976; Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1976-77

Experience: Elected governor of Arkansas 1996, served until January 2007; lieutenant governor 1993-96; president of Cambridge Communications, 1992-1996; president of KBSC-TV, 1987-1992; president of ACTS-TV, 1983-1986; Baptist minister, 1980-1992

Source: Times reports


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