By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Rising in the polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee is coming under intense scrutiny from both his 2008 GOP rivals and critics of his tenure as governor of Arkansas, who have seized in recent days on comments he had made about AIDS, on his role in a controversial parole and on his foreign policy credentials.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that, as a Senate candidate in 1992, Huckabee suggested quarantining people with AIDS, opposed additional federal funding for seeking a cure and said homosexuality was "an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk."
Huckabee is also facing scathing criticism from the mother of a woman who was killed by a convicted rapist whose release from prison was advocated by Huckabee when he was governor of Arkansas.
And campaigning in Ohio on Friday, former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), whose drop in polls has been nearly as fast as Huckabee's rise, called it "surprising" that Huckabee did not know about a recent intelligence finding that Iran had stopped its development of nuclear weapons in 2003. In an interview with more than a dozen reporters on Tuesday, Huckabee said he was not aware of the National Intelligence Estimate, which had dominated the news throughout that day.
The controversies have combined to emerge as the first real test for the campaign of a former Southern Baptist preacher who had raised little money and had remained low in the polls in the first nine months of the year but leapt to the front of the GOP field in Iowa late last month.
"The governor has stated repeatedly he is gaining traction and it's par for the course," Kirsten Fedewa, a Huckabee spokesman, said of the recent criticism. "He has a record and he will defend it. This is politics; this is what happens to front-runners."
Aides to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who now finds himself second in some Iowa polls after leading for several months, said Huckabee is finally getting the kind of criticism Romney has faced throughout the year.
"He's largely undefined," Gentry Collins, Romney's Iowa state director, said of Huckabee.
Huckabee has brushed aside the Iraq controversy, saying his staff should have briefed him on the matter. Thompson said it shows Huckabee lacks experience on foreign policy.
"These are the kinds of things I've been talking about all of my life," Thompson said, according to a CBS News report. "Now, if the American people have other priorities, if they want someone who smiles a lot more than I do, or someone who is a better quipster than I am, who has no experience in these areas, that's for the American people to decide."
As Huckabee's response to a questionnaire on AIDS began to circulate yesterday, his campaign issued a statement from him noting that in 1992 there was much confusion about how AIDS was spread. Huckabee pledged to make fighting AIDS a centerpiece of his presidency.
"We now know that the virus that causes AIDS is spread differently, with a lower level of contact than with TB," Huckabee's statement said. "But looking back almost 20 years, my concern was the uncertain risk to the general population -- if we got it wrong, many people would die needlessly. My concern was safety first, political correctness last."
The case of Wayne Dumond, the convicted rapist, has long dogged Huckabee.
As governor, Huckabee publicly advocated for Dumond's release, saying he believed that life imprisonment for rape was excessive. He has denied that he called for the state's parole board to free Dumond in an October 1996 meeting, although some board members have suggested that Huckabee privately implored them at that meeting to parole the convict, who was released early in 1997.
Lois Davidson, the mother of Carol Sue Shields, the woman Dumond was convicted of killing in 2000 after his release, has emerged as a harsh Huckabee critic, along with Janet Williams, whose daughter Sarah was widely alleged to have been killed by Dumond a few years later. Dumond died in prison in 2005.
"I just want people to realize what kind of man Huckabee is," Janet Williams told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this week. "He closed a blind eye to a really dangerous man and doesn't care, because he thinks he's invincible."
Repeatedly asked about the matter this week, Huckabee has said: "It was a horrible situation, horrible. I feel awful about it in every way."
He has also noted repeatedly that the parole board was filled with appointees of Bill Clinton, when he was governor of Arkansas, and of his successor, Democrat Jim Guy Tucker.
"I wish that there was some way I could go back and reverse the clock and put him back in prison," Huckabee said in a news conference. "But nobody, not me, not Jim Guy Tucker, not Bill Clinton, not that parole board, could ever imagine what might have transpired."