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A Higher Power

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007; Page A08

A young Mike Huckabee (left) with a Boy's State colleague.
A young Mike Huckabee (left) with a Boy's State colleague.(Family Photo)
When he climbed out of the car at Fort Robinson that morning in June 1972, Mike Huckabee found himself surrounded by 1,200 other high school juniors, each a leader in his Arkansas home town, each primed for an election. Several were carrying posters touting their platforms. Others were handing out cards.

Then as now, Huckabee didn't have the campaign apparatus of his peers. The 16-year-old arrived at Boys State, a prestigious and civic-minded youth camp run by the American Legion, from the small southwest Arkansas town of Hope with nothing but a suitcase and a gift for oratory.

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By week's end he was its brightest star, elected governor in a landslide. He left Boys State with a network of high-achieving new friends who were eager to hitch their futures to his. And he'd soon have a letter from Gov. Dale Bumpers encouraging him to consider a career in public service.

It was a heady triumph for a teenager who already harbored big ambitions. But it wasn't enough -- not yet -- to lure him from his chosen path: preaching the word of God.

Three days after Boys State, Huckabee and two buddies from Hope piled into a car and headed to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where they joined 80,000 other teenagers at Explo '72, the first worldwide gathering of evangelical youth. Time magazine dubbed it "the Jesus Woodstock." There, Huckabee spent six days learning from the Rev. Billy Graham and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, how to lead others to the Lord.

"It was transforming," Huckabee recalls. "Suddenly, I'm one of nearly 100,000 very young evangelical Christian believers who had a very fervent faith and wanted to change the world. Suddenly, I was confronted with a feeling of 'Wow! There are a lot of people like me, too.' "

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 ministerial calling to yield to his political aspirations. And when it did, many of those closest to the evangelical Baptist minister were shocked. But Huckabee has always been comfortable navigating both the spiritual and secular realms. For him, one form of power has always fueled the other.

* * *

Huckabee's rise to political prominence -- first among Southern Baptists, then among Arkansas Republicans and now among the candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination -- had an implausible beginning.

Huckabee was reared in a one-story brick rental house in Hope, the small town that also produced Bill Clinton. The Huckabees lived near Hope's railroad depot. Mike's father, Dorsey, a burly firefighter who never finished high school, was a "spare the rod, spoil the child" disciplinarian. Huckabee once referred to his father as a "patriot," saying: "He laid on the stripes, and I saw stars."

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