By Perry Bacon Jr. and Garance Franke-Ruta
Monday, November 30, 2009 7:53 PM
The shooting deaths Sunday of four police officers in a Tacoma, Wash., suburb and the ensuing manhunt for the suspect have renewed scrutiny of the pardon record of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), who commuted the accused gunman's prison term nine years ago, leading to his release.
Huckabee is one of the Republican Party's most popular figures, but he has been dogged by questions over the more than 1,000 commutations and pardons he issued -- more than his three predecessors combined -- during his 10-year tenure.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, he faced similar questions over the release from prison of a convicted rapist named Wayne DuMond, who was convicted of another rape and murder.
Huckabee tried then to distance himself from any role in the DuMond parole, and on Sunday, he similarly pointed at "a series of failures in the criminal justice system" regarding Maurice Clemmons. Police in Washington state are searching for Clemmons in connection with the shooting of officers at a coffee shop as they were starting their shifts.
Clemmons had been convicted in Arkansas in 1989 of robbery and theft, and was serving a lengthy prison term when Huckabee commuted it in 2000. The Arkansas parole board subsequently released him from prison.
Huckabee's aides declined a request for an interview with the former governor and current Fox News Channel talk show host. They sought to cast Clemmons's release from prison as a collective error of both Arkansas officials and those in Washington state, where he had been released on bail after being charged with assault on a police officer and rape.
Sarah Huckabee, the governor's daughter and one of his top political advisers, said her father planned to address the details of Clemmons's release Monday night in an appearance on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show.
Michelle Malkin, a popular conservative blogger, dubbed the situation "Huckabee's Willie Horton," likening it to the convicted killer whose crimes upon his release from prison hurt the 1988 presidential campaign of then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
"This story is political quicksand, and if the Republican conservative establishment doesn't throw him a lifeline immediately, it could be very damaging to a presidential run," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist.
Robert Herzfeld, a former prosecutor in Arkansas who sharply opposed some of Huckabee's clemencies, said, "When you put that many people out of jail, it's inevitable someone is doing to commit more crimes."
Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and went on to claim several other key states, but he ultimately lost the GOP nomination to Sen. John McCain. Republicans rank him in polls along with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as their favorites for the 2012 campaign. A Des Moines Register poll last month showed Huckabee with higher favorable ratings in that state than most of the other leading contenders.
This September, Huckabee won a September straw poll at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, highlighting his appeal to social conservatives.