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The Nation

Huckabee finds a spotlight

The GOP hopeful has little money or name recognition, but spots on TV talk shows offer hope -- for free.

August 16, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It has not been easy for Mike Huckabee to stand out in the crowd of White House contenders, as he is quick to admit.

"There are a lot of dogs at the same dish trying to eat a limited amount of food," he told CBS this week.

The former Arkansas governor has long ranked as an afterthought, if that, in a contest dominated by better-known candidates. But his second-place finish in a Republican straw poll in Iowa last weekend has spawned a burst of media attention.

That's a major boon to Huckabee, who has barely enough cash to run a viable campaign. For him and more than a dozen other lower-tier candidates, invitations to appear on national TV -- Huckabee this week snagged a spot on CBS' "Early Show," among others -- are a badly needed source of hope that there may be a path to relevance.

A campaign for president, said political scientist G. Terry Madonna, is "an ugly process that favors people who have a lot of money" and a familiar name.

Huckabee has neither. Instead, the Southern Baptist minister with a knack for homespun rhetoric is banking on sheer force of personality -- and free media time to project it.

"The strategy that he's been following for quite some time says, 'I'll be discovered because of my personal charisma and talent, and not because I raised a lot of money,' " said political consultant Dick Dresner, one of Huckabee's top advisors.

No matter how much money he raises, Huckabee is sure to fall millions short of what leading Republicans, such as Rudolph W. Giuliani, will spend on TV ads. At the end of June, the former New York mayor reported $18 million in cash on hand; Huckabee had just over $437,000.

To generate money and support, Huckabee needs more than just free media exposure, said Madonna, who teaches at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He also needs Giuliani and the other front-runners to "implode."

"Look, he needs help, and the bottom line is: He can't do it himself," Madonna said. "Something has to happen that's beyond his control."

So far, Huckabee has counted largely on debates to draw attention, using folksy one-liners to try to outshine his rivals. Introducing himself at a CNN debate in June, he joked about former President Clinton, with whom he shares a hometown: "I'm from the small town of Hope. You may have heard of it. All I ask you is: Give us one more chance."

Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2003, Huckabee shed 110 pounds, ran four marathons and wrote a book on diet and exercise: "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork." In his campaign, he counsels healthful eating, warning that obesity threatens to ruin the nation's healthcare system and economy. A Huckabee tip: "Look, if it comes through a car window, it isn't food."

In addition to being an ordained minister, Huckabee, 51, has been a disc jockey, TV station owner and lieutenant governor. He describes himself as an atypical Republican, vowing to promote healthcare, the environment and education -- especially art and music classes. He plays bass guitar in a rock band called Capitol Offense.

One of several Republicans angling for support from evangelicals, Huckabee often invokes his early years as a pastor in Arkansas and speaks out against abortion and same-sex marriage.

His record on taxes is mixed; as governor, he cut some but supported increases in others. A group affiliated with the Club for Growth, a Washington-based anti-tax organization, has run a blistering TV ad in Iowa, calling Huckabee a "tax-and-spend liberal."

Campaigning for president, Huckabee calls for abolishing federal taxes on income and capital gains -- he would replace those and other taxes with a 23% sales tax.

Critics have faulted Huckabee on ethics. As governor, he drew political attacks for accepting $53,382 in gifts from a Little Rock businessman in 1999. They included $23,032 in clothing, $11,700 in pastries for his staff, $10,400 in flowers and $7,500 for a party. "I guess I could always say no," Huckabee said at the time. "But I'm not going to let being governor keep me from having friends."

Still, Huckabee hopes a public yearning for change in Washington will enhance the appeal of his background as a governor -- as it did for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

So far, the biggest break of his campaign was to garner 2,587 votes in Saturday's straw poll of Republican activists in Ames, Iowa. Because the victory of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (with 4,516 votes) was a foregone conclusion, Huckabee's runner-up status turned him into a talk-show star.

"It was a big day for us," Huckabee told host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball." "And I think it proves that if we just had, you know, some money, that this campaign would be on top of the mountain and not crawling up the side of it."

Later, he added: "You know, a lot of donors told us that if we got some traction, they'd help us. Well, I'm telling them: 'We got the traction. You need to send a check.' "

"Well," Matthews replied, "if we had wings, we could fly."

--

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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