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Attention Must Be Paid

The "Today" show, with Meredith Vieira, was one of many stops on Mike Huckabee's whirlwind media tour last week. (Taken From Tv)

"We always discount people who are lagging in the polls," says Dionne, who was intrigued when his sister sent him Huckabee's diet book. "There's always a fear of touting the next Bruce Babbitt," the Democrat who was briefly a media darling in the 1988 race. Reporters, says Dionne, "second-guess themselves, not unreasonably, when they are touting dark horses."

Huckabee, operating on a shoestring budget, had good reason to be constantly accessible to the press. Like John McCain in 2000, who held endless chat-fests aboard his bus, Huckabee needed free media because he couldn't afford the paid kind. In May, Post columnist David Broder -- one of those courted early by Huckabee -- praised him as "a good-natured fundamentalist" with "an independent streak."

Some journalists are drawn to Huckabee's emphasis on compassion for the poor, even if they disagree with his opposition to abortion and embrace of creationism. And then there is the matter of style. The Los Angeles Times, describing his opposition to a 2005 Arkansas bill to deprive illegal immigrants of public benefits, approvingly quoted Huckabee as saying: "I drink a different kind of Jesus juice."

He has also garnered favorable coverage for one-liners at the GOP debates. At one, he said Congress has "spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop." Asked at another debate what Jesus would do about the death penalty, Huckabee retorted: "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office."

Until he finished second in last summer's Iowa straw poll, Huckabee's also-ran status served as a sort of shield. News organizations generally limit their investigations to candidates who are high in the polls, on the theory that those back in the pack aren't viewed as potential presidents. But if a single-digit contender moves up in the all-powerful polls, reporters parachute into their home state and start turning over rocks. And rival campaigns start unleashing their ammunition.

Huckabee has been viewed more skeptically by the home-state press. Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times and a frequent Huckabee critic, says he is "kind of shocked" that the press hasn't scrutinized such Huckabee proposals as abolishing the income tax in favor of a national sales tax. "It's been dereliction of duty, frankly," he says. "I think reporters are desperate for a new narrative, and he's a fresh face."

Now, however, the warm-and-fuzzy coverage of Huckabee is taking on a harder edge. Reporters have looked at his tax hikes in Arkansas, a series of gifts to Huckabee that drew rebukes from the state ethics panel and, most notably, the early release in 1999 of a convicted rapist who later sexually assaulted and killed a woman in Missouri.

The Huffington Post bannered a story headlined "Exclusive: New Documents Expose Huckabee's Role in Serial Rapist's Release." Huckabee did not hide from the story, talking to all the networks in a 24-hour span and fielding questions at a news conference. He disputed some details of Murray Waas's Huffington Post account, calling it "a very liberal, left-wing blog" and saying that while he regrets what happened, his role was to sign off on the parole board's decision.

ABC, working with the Web site, interviewed a former parole board member who said Huckabee had pressed the panel to release the convict, Wayne Dumond. Huckabee calls the story "totally inaccurate," saying he was "amazed" that correspondent Brian Ross had ignored information he had provided. Still, he says, "I'd rather go ahead and face it, let's deal with it and let it get exhausted. While it's old stuff in Arkansas, I realize it's new stuff to a lot of people."

Ross acknowledges that "Good Morning America" made one error, using an on-screen headline that referred to Huckabee granting a "pardon," which he did not. But the story "was fair and presented his reaction, as best we could get it, to every single thing we raised," Ross says.

After the piece ran, Huckabee gave Ross an interview for an update on "World News." "He was very classy," Ross says. "These were not easy questions, and he answered them in a straightforward way."

When Huckabee hosted a dinner for journalists in Des Moines, he caused a flap by saying he was unfamiliar with the day-old news that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded Iran had not been pursuing a nuclear weapon for four years. On "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, host Chris Wallace began by asking about Huckabee's 1992 suggestion that AIDS patients should be quarantined.

Some conservative columnists have stepped up their criticism. George Will wrote that Huckabee "combines pure moralism with incoherent populism." Charles Krauthammer accused him of "playing the religion card" against Mitt Romney. What's more, Slate, professing concern about chief executives obsessed with exercise, ran the headline: "Is Mike Huckabee Too Fit to Be President?"

Huckabee is riding a wave that could submerge him, while his staff is having to turn down interview requests for the first time. "He constantly warns us that we can't kill him," Fedewa says.

Blogger Gets Bounced

National Review has apologized for an "editing failure" involving a blogger in Lebanon and says it can no longer stand by a disputed dispatch from W. Thomas Smith Jr. The former Marine resigned Friday, saying he "should have been more specific in terms of my sourcing."

The magazine's Web editor, Kathryn Jean Lopez, wrote that after Smith reported that 5,000 Hezbollah gunmen had massed in a Christian part of Beirut, "two of our independent sources agreed with Smith's critics that the event was unlikely, and one -- an editor who lives and works in Beirut -- flatly stated that it didn't happen."

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