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Attention Must Be Paid
Spotlight, and Scrutiny, Find Surging Huckabee

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007

Mike Huckabee was an obscure Arkansas governor three years ago when he invited a dozen pundits to lunch at a Capitol Hill eatery.

"That was when I began to form the impression this was a guy with real communications skills and real potential," says CNBC correspondent John Harwood. "He plainly had real gifts for talking about policy in a very human way."

The courtship paid dividends. When the latest man from Hope launched his presidential bid, he was depicted as a funny, charming, guitar-playing preacher who had miraculously shed 110 pounds -- and who would need divine intervention to win the Republican nomination. Hard-news stories, meanwhile, treated him like an asterisk.

"I got obliterated in news coverage," Huckabee says. "The frustrating thing was, a lot of people weren't even aware that I was running." Reporters, he says, "were basing everything on 'How much money have you got?' I couldn't wave a big checkbook in their face."

But, he says in an interview volunteered by his campaign, "I got feature coverage from columnists who felt someone like me ought to get attention."

Now that Huckabee has surged to a 22-point lead in Iowa (as reported in today's Newsweek cover story, "Holy Huckabee") and second place among Republicans nationally, journalists are suddenly fascinated by the man -- and chasing every negative story around. Huckabee, in turn, hasn't exactly been elusive during the process.

Last Monday, a day after appearing on ABC's "This Week," Huckabee was on CBS's "Early Show," the "CBS Evening News" and "Nightline." He was featured on the front pages of USA Today and the New York Times (twice) last week, and bounced from "Today" to "Hardball" to "The Situation Room" to "Morning Joe."

Kirsten Fedewa, a longtime Huckabee adviser, says the early conclaves with national political writers and columnists were crucial. "It helped him to establish relationships and articulate his vision to an audience of tough-minded, politically savvy reporters," she says. "He really had to go around the conventional wisdom by going to people who would carry his story."

Rex Nelson, Huckabee's former communications chief, likens the charm offensive -- which peaked when Huckabee was chairman of the National Governors Association -- to that of another Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton. "In an era of programmed politicians who won't stray from the talking points, he's a good quote," Nelson says.

National Journal's Ron Brownstein says he found Huckabee "very engaging" at one such session, but didn't expect his rapid rise. Fedewa, he says, "was very dogged about making you aware of his movements. She would always be e-mailing."

When Huckabee announced his candidacy in January, he got brief mentions on the NBC and ABC evening newscasts and none on CBS. "Huckabee enters the race as a long shot," The Washington Post said.

But not everyone gave Huckabee short shrift. Syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that month that Huckabee was "the Republican to watch . . . a southerner with unassailable Christian evangelical credentials."

"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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