AMES, Iowa — Mike Huckabee was relaxing after a campaign event, bouncing his granddaughter Scarlett on his lap, and tearing into Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for being born in Canada.
"The eligibility issue is real," Huckabee said. "It's not a foregone deal. It would be if it was just bloggers talking about it. But you've got law professors, very skilled and schooled in constitutional law, saying this issue is not settled."
The former Arkansas governor had not actually been asked about Cruz's eligibility to serve as president — only why he thought Cruz was slipping in polls. Sitting in Jeff's Pizza Shop, a restaurant near Iowa State University, the 2008 winner of the Iowa caucuses complimented the attacks made in an ad from the super PAC supporting his campaign. Even in his Q&A session with voters, Huckabee made sure to criticize people who did not donate at least 10 percent of their earnings to charity — a not-so-subtle jab at Cruz.
"You know, I don't want to comment on what he gives or doesn't," said Huckabee. "My view is this: On a spiritual level, it’s really hard to say that God is first in my life if he’s last in my budget. On a more personal, and even a philosophical-political level, one of the reasons we end up paying 50 cents out of every dollar we earn is the government is doing all the work of welfare. That originally was the work of the church. If, as a Christian, I resent giving 50 cents out of a dollar to the government, why would I not even give a dime out of that dollar to do the work of real charity? I don't know how you can have smaller government if you don't have bigger charitable hearts."
To Huckabee, Cruz has run a con on social conservatives, one they should have seen through.
"I don't know whether they were hoodwinked or not," he said. "Here's what I do know: Ted Cruz has said very different things when he speaks to donors than he says when he goes to Marshalltown, where I just came from. Whether they knew that, and it didn't matter to them, or whether they didn't know that, I can't say."
Huckabee's attack on Cruz runs along a broad spectrum — he rattled off "immigration, H1-B visas, ethanol, Syrian refugees, trade" as issues on which he had been a consistent populist, and Cruz had flip-flopped. "He wrote an article with Mike Lee, praising the trade policy — then, when it became unpopular with conservatives, he said it had to stop," said Huckabee.
In their quadrennial panic about the "establishment" of the party, many social conservative leaders got behind Cruz early, seeing him as the first candidate in a generation who could win on their issues. Were Cruz to lose Iowa, however narrowly, several less conservative candidates expect him to tumble. Huckabee would be left saying "I told you so," something he was already prepared to do.
"The truth is, the evangelical vote is always splintered," he said. "The big myth is that it unites. It didn't unite in 2008. If it had, I'd have been the nominee. If you go back and look at who endorsed me, very few of the 'leaders' did. They endorsed Romney, McCain, Thompson — some of 'em, even Giuliani. And you know what their criteria was? He has money. 'He can win.' Even though none of 'em did. If the criteria for spiritual people is anything but spiritual, it's a typical political power vote. 'This guy's got money.' He might not say the same thing when he goes to New York and has that fundraiser put on by the two gay activists. He might not say the same to the big brokerage houses."
Huckabee even declined to criticize Donald Trump for skipping Thursday's debate. Doing so would have aligned him with Cruz.
"I've offered to Fox that I'd be happy to take that podium, but it really doesn't affect me," said Huckabee. "And nobody on the trail, at over 99 county events, has ever asked me about Trump."
Twenty-four hours later, Huckabee announced that he would join Trump at his ad hoc "fundraiser for veterans," happening the same time as the debate — and thereby undercutting Cruz's argument that Trump was stiffing the voters of Iowa.