The Next Huckabee Surprise?

By David S. Broder
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Buoyed by his surprise second-place finish in the Iowa Republican straw poll, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is plotting an even bigger coup against Mitt Romney in the first presidential primary, in New Hampshire.

His inspiration for the audacious plot comes from two unlikely people: Pat Buchanan and Bill Clinton.

Clinton, the original man from Hope, Ark., Huckabee's home town, was no better known to New Hampshire voters in the autumn of 1991 than Huckabee is today, while Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, leads the Granite State field. But, despite the Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging scandals that plagued his campaign there, Clinton won enough friends to finish second in New Hampshire to 1992's neighboring candidate, former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas.

Thanks to New Hampshire, Clinton proclaimed himself the "comeback kid" and went on to thrash Tsongas in the follow-up contests in Florida, Georgia and the rest of the South.

Huckabee figures that if he can just get past Romney in New Hampshire, he can do the same thing to him when the 2008 battle shifts south to Florida and South Carolina in January.

The way to do that in New Hampshire may lie in the example of the Buchanan campaigns, which embarrassed George H.W. Bush in 1992 and defeated Bob Dole in the 1996 primary. Buchanan's populist appeal caught those establishment candidates unawares.

Running at a time when seeming prosperity cloaked a growing sense of public frustration about imports, job losses and a shaky housing-banking market, Buchanan mobilized blue-collar Republicans and independents against the elitist candidates.

Huckabee is testing the same themes -- but not in the strident, angry language that Buchanan used when he urged his followers to "ride to the sound of the guns." Huckabee comes off as the friendly, down-home country preacher, a retired Baptist minister who can soothe and entertain the congregation, not just warn them of the fires of Hell.

But the message is designed to play to public discontent, especially when an overpriced housing market is once again being shaken in New Hampshire, as elsewhere, by a credit crunch.

"The economy looks good when you measure it in macro terms," Huckabee said Thursday during a stopover in Washington, "but a lot of families are struggling just to reach the next step on the ladder." Having grown up in a family where "you finished everything on your plate, because you never wasted a thing," Huckabee said that he empathizes with the anxiety of "people who have no trust fund, no safety net to fall back on."

He didn't have to name Romney as the "trust fund" candidate in the race. The former venture capitalist's wealth has been well publicized. All Huckabee has to say is "I've walked the aisles at Wal-Mart" to make his class consciousness evident.

Huckabee, like Buchanan in his time, is quick to jump on the easy foreign targets -- the Chinese who are shipping unsafe toys and toothpaste to the United States, the illegal immigrants "who walk across the border without a scrap of identification and immediately go to work."

He mixes this with a set of social-issue positions strong enough to attract the kind of religious-right support he has in Iowa but leavened with enough tolerant-sounding messages to appeal to the independents in New Hampshire. He says he speaks for a kinder, gentler fundamentalism that cares as much about fighting poverty and protecting the environment as it does about abortion and gay marriage. And he decries talk that God favors one party over another.

His challenge, of course, is not just to beat Romney but Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson -- any one of whom could upset his plans.

But now that the money has started to flow his way, with 16 fundraisers scheduled since he finished second in Iowa, and he has begun to establish a position for himself in the race, the rest of the steps no longer look nearly as implausible. It has been done before.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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