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The Front-Runners: Mike Huckabee

Republican presidential hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, listens to a reporter's question during a press conference in Dallas, Monday, Dec. 10, 2007. Huckabee acknowledged Monday the importance of cash in campaigning, but says his new status near the top of the polls has little to do with money. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Republican presidential hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, listens to a reporter's question during a press conference in Dallas, Monday, Dec. 10, 2007. Huckabee acknowledged Monday the importance of cash in campaigning, but says his new status near the top of the polls has little to do with money. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) (Tony Gutierrez - AP)

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Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007; 1:00 PM

"Huckabee's decision to enter the ministry, announced before his senior year of high school, disappointed a number of admiring teachers and classmates. Why would he squander such obvious leadership potential, they asked, to be a preacher? 'But this is what he knew in his heart he was supposed to do,' says his older sister, Pat Harris. 'I don't think Mike ever quibbled or felt like he was giving up anything. He was totally committed to what he was doing.' It would take almost two decades for Huckabee's spiritual calling to yield to his political aspirations. And when it did, many of those closest to the evangelical Baptist minister were shocked. But Huckabee himself has always been comfortable navigating both the spiritual and secular realms. For him, one form of power has always fueled the other."

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Washington Post writer Liz Clarke was online Monday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her article exploring Mike Huckabee, his relationship with his father, and his campaign for the presidency.

The transcript follows.

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Liz Clarke: Good afternoon. Sorry for being a little late. I'm looking forward to talking about Mike Huckabee.

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Arlington, Mass.: In part because of his own experience with successful weight loss, Gov. Huckabee paid more attention than most governors do to food policy -- how public policy can support a healthy food environment, for example. This fall, we just suffered another disappointing reformless Farm Bill. Do you think Huckabee would be more likely than other candidates to support a new direction in food and farm policy?

Liz Clarke: That's an interesting question. Let's start here. In my time speaking to Gov. Huckabee, reading his books and interview transcripts, this didn't come up. But from what I learned, I would guess that he would be more proactive than some others. Largely because of his own experience, having been diagnosed with Type II diabetes and warned that his lifestyle and eating habits were on the way to sending him to an early grave, he did become more proactive about how public policy can help steer people to a healthier lifestyle. He favors a shift in health-care spending to preventive care, and has spoken about finding ways to reward people for healthy lifestyles -- lifestyles, specifically, that will save taxpayers money in the long run.

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Jefferson, N.C.: Hello Liz -- thanks for taking the time to reply to our questions. In your article, you point out that Mike Huckabee is a dedicated fundamentalist, i.e. that he believes "that Adam and Eve were real people, that God created the Earth in seven days, that evolution is a false doctrine and that homosexuality is a grave sin." In other words, his world view is completely antagonistic to that of modern science. In his article that just appeared in Foreign Affairs, Huckabee claims that the people in the U.S. must "understand what Islamic terrorists are about, that they really do want to kill every last one of us and destroy civilization as we know it."

As Sam Harris and others have pointed out, there is little difference between the worldviews of the Christian Fundamentalist and the Islamic Fundamentalist. Ultimately they want to destroy the secular scientific worldview of an Earth that was formed 4.55 billion years ago, after which evolution produced life-forms as we see find them today.

The differences between these two world views is so great that they can not be reconciled. I think the fundamentalists are desperate to spread their worldview, as the secular world has come to dominate life as we know it. I worry that a man like Huckabee would decide& as president that the scientific (or secular) worldview must be suppressed with force and intimidation, much like the Inquisition under the Catholic Church. Has Mike Huckabee given any indication of his thoughts on this irreconcilable divide?

washingtonpost.com: America's Priorities in the War on Terror (Foreign Affairs, January 2008 issue)

Liz Clarke: Your concerns are stated clearly. Regarding the issue that has drawn most attention -- Huckabee's acknowledgement that he does not believe in evolution -- he never has said that he favors outlawing or banning its teaching. He has said, however, that he supports the teaching of other theories, such as intelligent design, alongside it. He feels that teaching evolution alone is tantamount to "indoctrinating" students. He would like evolution presented as a theory, alongside other theories.

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Annapolis, Md.: Thanks for the article -- it painted in the background behind the thoughtful, engaging man I've seen in the debates and on "The Colbert Report." It's clear he's comfortable reaching out to all kinds of people, and that his Jesus is the inclusive kind and not the hate-mongering kind. But how has this played out in Arkansas, and in his campaign so far? Are his record and his campaign similar to those of other Christians who enact divisiveness, or has he actually achieved some of this Christian cooperation?

Liz Clarke: Thanks for the kind words. Your question hits at the issue that I sense troubles most people: Would Gov. Huckabee's Christian convictions translate to public policy that's inclusive and respectful of other views, or intolerant.

Looking at his political record, which you could argue began when he served as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in 1989-91, you'd conclude that Huckabee did an admirable job striking a conciliatory tone. His personal theology represented the conservative Baptists, yet his tenure made room for moderates; as a result, he won kudos for keeping the Baptists from splitting in two.

As governor of Arkansas, he has a 10 1/2 year record to study. Certainly he archived some of the main agenda items of conservative Christians in that time, but it was far short of a theocracy. or particularly divisive -- at least on matters of faith. His record on spending, however, did divide lots of people.

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Washington: Hi Liz. The race for the Republican nomination seems wide open, and the candidates, to me, appear to have many more differences between them than do the candidates running for the Democratic nomination. Do you agree? If you do, do you think this is merely a scramble to keep the White House, or does it truly reflect a broad base of viewpoints that could constitute Republicanism?

Liz Clarke: That's an interesting observation, and one I think most people would agree with. It seems that the Democrats -- as outsiders by definition -- have much to coalesce around in arguing that the country needs a change from the present administration. The Republican argument for keeping the party but changing leadership is a more complicated one. There are also so many in the field -- five front-runners, by most definitions, as opposed to three. And each is trying to distinguish himself, naturally. And they do run the gamut, from Ron Paul's libertarianism to Rudy Giuliani's pro-choice views, and lots of views in between. It's a pity, in many respects, that the Republican field is so crowded still. As a viewer, I have found the debates frustrating as a result -- very difficult to get more than a snippet, quip or jape from any of them.

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Washington: Mike Huckabee truly seemed like a dark horse early on. Can the grassroots home-schooling groups truly be credited with his elevation to front-runner status?

washingtonpost.com: Home-School Ties Aided Huckabee's Iowa Rise (Post, Dec. 17)

Liz Clarke: I think they surely can get a lot of credit for publicizing his candidacy in Iowa, which is what today's story in The Post laid out. In other states, they may be less effective. But Huckabee's surge in Iowa truly is the result of grass-roots, word-of-mouth conversation and activity. I think individual pastors have had a hand in that. And I do think the home-schooling community, as Peter Slevin and Perry Bacon pointed out, have played a key role. I'd certainly give them more credit than I would Chuck Norris!

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Chelmsford, Mass.: How is it possible that, in the first decade of the 21st century, Huckabee can even be considered as a candidate for president of the United States? He is a religious fanatic who would fit right in with the Taliban. Thomas Jefferson must be spinning in his grave. Come on, people!

Liz Clarke: I'll publish this in the spirit of the chat -- a forum for readers to air views. My only response would be taht I think the comparison to the Taliban is extreme and unfair. I do think that Huckabee's religious convictions are something voters will want to consider -- particularly because he has introduced himself to the nation as a "Christian leader" and said on numerous occasions that "my faith explains me." By doing so, Huckabee has put his views -- and what they mean for nonbelievers, as well as believers of different faiths -- front-and-center in his campaign in a way that none of his rivals have.

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Nashua, N.H.: What do you make of Huckabee's reported ethical lapses during his governorship -- specifically accepting large gifts as reported on Politico.com? It's confusing to figure out whether he's this ethical good-guy or just another politician. What's your sense?

washingtonpost.com: Huck's gift-givers ended up in state posts (Politico, Dec. 14)

Liz Clarke: Great question. When Huckabee was little more than an asterisk in the campaign, there were few stories, if any, about controversial episodes during his tenure as Arkansas governor -- whether that was his role in the pardon of a rapist/murderer who killed again; his reputation for being thin-skinned to a fault or his acceptance of gifts that drew the scrutiny of the state's ethics panel. He would cast himself as the victim of people/Democrats out to get him and likes to joke that he has been accused of everything from being complicit in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping to the JFK assassination. It's a joke meant to defuse further scrutiny. But all of these issues will be probed more deeply, to be sure.

I'm not sure I'm fit to say whether he's an ethical good guy or just another politician, given that I was able to do only one one-on-one interview with him and a follow-up by phone. That said, my impression is that he is quite sincere and ethical. He also came to politics from 12 years in the ministry, where congregations provide for the needs of pastors -- whether that's salary, housing, etc. Perhaps that partly explains if his perception of appropriate gift-giving was blurred as a sitting governor. He would dismiss such inquiry as scurrilous and unfounded, though.

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Baltimore: As a nonreligious person, I am horrified by the possibility of a Baptist minister as president. Have you seen any surveys of how he'd fare against the Democratic candidates if he becomes the Republican nominee?

Liz Clarke: From the questions I'm getting today, your concerns are mirrored by many people. I have seen at least one survey that indicates he'd fare poorly against the Democratic candidate -- whomever that might be -- if he were the Republican nominee. I wish I could elaborate on why that was said to be so, as well as comment on the methodology, but I can't. It's obviously something for Republicans to consider as they assemble their ticket.

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Huckabee and the Taliban: Hello Ms. Clarke. While Chelmsford's view may be extreme (i.e. the Taliban example used to illustrate a point) do you think that there are any alarm bells ringing in areas of the party because there are two ultra-conservatives like Romney and Huckabee running? Perhaps if either were elected the line between church and state would become a little more blurred?

Liz Clarke: Boy, there is a lot to think about in your question. I'm not sure alarm bells are ringing among Republicans. I imagine the Giuliani and McCain camps are thrilled, given prospect of Romney and Huckabee chipping away at each other's bases.

I'm not sure, also, that Romney is seen yet as authentically ultraconservative. I think many still wonder where his priorities lie and whether what he espouses today will be espoused on Inauguration Day, should he win the presidency.

I do think that the line between church and state would become a little bit more blurred, yes. I think some would say that has been under way these past several years. How much more so, I'm not clear.

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Frederick, Md.: His denial of evolution bothers me because he ignores a lot of scientific research. If he believes the literal bible, how much science does he deny? Is he comfortable talking about emerging diseases, drug resistant strains, genetic testing, etc.? Has his belief left a vacuum of knowledge?

Liz Clarke: I understand your concerns.

On matters of education, Huckabee consistently says he views this as a matter for the states. He is happy to say that he supports the teaching of different theories of man's creation, but he has not said he envisions a national standard or requirement.

On the matter of stem cell research, he ardently and obviously is opposed to the destruction of human embryos for scientific purposes.

But he's not a flat-earth proponent. I'd love to see further debates and interviews prod him to expound further, though.

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Hilton Head, S.C.: Thank you for your time and for taking all of these questions. What does the GOP "establishment" think of Huckabee's chances for going all the way? Although I am not sure he can be called a fanatic, his beliefs would tend to turn off the all-important independents, who are necessary to take the presidency.

Liz Clarke: It's my pleasure, truly! The questions are so good and interesting. My sense is the GOP establishment is starting to take him quite seriously. Perhaps his showing in New Hampshire will snuff that out, but I wouldn't count on it. Huckabee's hiring of Ed Rollins, who directed Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign, was a major development. Huckabee may not parrot the party line or be the ideal candidate the GOP would have produced, but it's undeniable that he connects with voters in a powerful way. His charisma, warmth and humor are undeniable. He is genuinely likable. And the people who feel strongly about him are the sort who are very motivated and follow through at the polls. In short, even if the GOP establishment has reservations, they will be overlooked if he captures the imagination of voters. I think he'll also be eyed as a potential vice president.

Whether he can woo independents is a very interesting question. New Hampshire will give us the first clue. Also, Ed Rollins, the former Reagan advisor, also served as an advisor to Ross Perot in 1992. He might know a thing or two about how to appeal to independents

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Arlington, Va.: Does Mike Huckabee believe homosexuality is the result of genetics, or that it represents a "lifestyle choice"?

Liz Clarke: Very interesting question; I honestly do not know. I would suspect the latter, because he generally has spoken about it in the context of what he characterizes as the country's moral slide or decay, implying it is a choice. I certainly cannot speak for him -- that's just my impression. I don't recall him being asked your question.

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Re: Religious Fanatic Comment: I have met Huckabee twice this year -- he is hardly a fanatic. He is a man with a religious background and conviction. Why the scared tone of that question? What was your impression from interviewing him?

Liz Clarke: I'm glad you wrote in because I agree, and it's hard to match this impression with much of the rhetoric, as well as the policy stances he has.

I found him to be a man of conviction, direct and warm, with a genuine, sincere populist streak. I didn't detect any guile. Regardless of where you stand on the theological spectrum or political spectrum, I do think it will be fairly easy for each person to decide where they stand in relation to him. That's an awkward turn of phrase on my part. I'm trying to say that he strikes me as comfortable in his skin, and confident of his beliefs. They may rattle people, but he will tell you how he feels; then you can decide if you support it, can live with it or reject it. I just wish the Republican field could be winnowed somehow -- fairly of course -- so that voters could get more substantive information about what Huckabee envisions for his potential presidency.

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Max Brantley fan: (He's the editor of the Arkansas Times, whom Huckabee banned from press conferences as governor.) When will we see Janet Huckabee in coverage? I find common ground with the former governor, but her I find to be Nancy Reagan without the redeeming qualities.

Liz Clarke: Interesting question. The governor's wife was not well-liked in Arkansas in short. She ran for Secretary of State while he was governor and was defeated badly -- to the point that some pollsters said her lack of popularity actually was undermining his own re-election.

She has not been written about much on a national scale, because until recently he was not seen as a viable candidate. She probably will be written about soon.

I've spoken with her twice and found her a direct, no-nonsense person -- obviously ardently supportive of her husband. Interestingly, she has a concealed weapons permits, as does he, and has enjoyed jumping out of a helicopter and firing a grenade launcher. She was also an all-conference basketball player at Hope High School.

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Boston: I understand that Huckabee's religious convictions -- and his willingness to place them front and center -- make him more attractive to evangelical voters, but I don't want to just assume that evangelical and Republican automatically equal the same thing. What proportion of Republicans do you really think will determine their vote based on criteria laid out in religious dogma? Thank you, I'm a liberal trying to understand!

Liz Clarke: Great question. I think there is a segment of evangelical voters that Huckabee has reached and will continue to reach in a profound, impassioned way. These voters will support him fervently. But you raise a great point -- in that evangelical voters are not a monolith. I don't think the majority of Republican voters will determine their vote based on religious dogma, nor will most Democrats. I imagine Jimmy Carter's Southern Baptist faith was just as sincere and strongly felt as Huckabee's (although perhaps not theologically the same), yet that didn't stop Democrats in droves from defecting. I think dogma, where it connects, is a powerful organizing and motivational tool -- but it doesn't trump everything in speaking to most voters.

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Arlington, Va.: Liz, learn to use the word "theory" as used by scientists. Intelligent design is not a "theory" -- it is the camel's nose under the tent to get creationism taught in science class (which would be unconstitutional). Scientists use the word "theory" differently than lay people, so use it correctly -- here are two examples: Kepler's theory of planetary motion, and Copernicus's theory of heliocentrism.

Liz Clarke: I stand corrected. Thank you.

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Washington: We have heard very little about the foreign policy advisers to Mike Huckabee. While religious leaders are a source of advice for Huckabee, who else does he lean on for guidance?

Liz Clarke: You are correct -- we have heard little on this point. I don't know that there are particular religious leaders he leans on for advice. Baptists believe in the "priesthood of the believers," for one -- I hope I don't get this wrong, but it is in a sense the belief that there is no intermediary between man and God. On a side note, it's interesting that many of the politically prominent evangelicals, Pat Robertson chief among them, have not endorsed Huckabee. Robertson has endorsed Giuliani. Huckabee has written and said repeatedly that, as governor, he recognized God as his supreme moral authority -- just as he did before he was governor.

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Liz Clarke: I'm afraid we've run out of time. Sorry I didn't get to all the questions. They were very thoughtful and not easily answered with a snappy reply. I really enjoyed the conversation. Many thanks.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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