LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — In 2005, a Republican state senator named Jim Holt introduced a bill to deny public benefits to Arkansas' soaring population of illegal immigrants. Holt, a Southern Baptist minister, figured it was a rock-solid conservative idea -- a matter, he said, "of right and wrong."
Arkansas' governor at the time was also a professed conservative, and also a Southern Baptist minister. But Mike Huckabee had only scorn for his fellow Republican's proposal.
Huckabee called the bill "race-baiting" and "demagoguery," and argued that the denial of health services could harm innocent children. The bill, Huckabee said, did not conform with his take on Christian values.
"I drink a different kind of Jesus juice," Huckabee said.
Today, Huckabee is seeking the Republican nomination for president, and voters nationwide are getting to know a different kind of candidate: He is the Southern preacher who favors droll wit over brimstone sermonizing, a rock 'n' roll bass player who believes in creationism, with an Oprah-ready story about a 110-pound weight loss that probably saved his life.
Here in Arkansas, where Huckabee ruled as governor for 10 1/2 years, voters grew accustomed to a different brand of Republican -- a governor with an idiosyncratic agenda that was sometimes difficult to categorize, but always driven, Huckabee insists, by his Southern Baptist faith. That faith influenced major policy decisions that could be deemed moderate, if not liberal, including a significant environmental initiative and a vastly expanded healthcare plan for low-income children.
Though Huckabee took strong stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, his record on taxes -- a key pillar of Republican orthodoxy -- was distinctly heterodox. He supported tax hikes on cigarettes, gasoline, groceries, sales and income. A video circulating on YouTube -- and played, in part, on the CNN-YouTube Republican debate Wednesday -- shows Huckabee addressing the Arkansas Legislature in 2003 and suggesting that he would be open to raising a broad range of taxes.
Initiatives like the children's health plan tapped a deep vein of populism, helping Huckabee win two gubernatorial elections. But his record on taxes and immigration alienated some Arkansas Republicans, who are watching with trepidation as Huckabee's prospects soar in the GOP primary race for president.
The most recent Des Moines Register poll, published today, showed Huckabee overtaking former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (Huckabee's 29%-to-24% lead in the Register's poll is within the margin of error, but it's a huge advance from his tie for sixth place in the same poll in the spring.) Other surveys showed him gaining ground against former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in Florida.
Holt, the former state senator, has a warning for conservatives around the country who think they have found their candidate.
"I think if they knew [his record] it would totally de-energize them," he said. " . . . His policies are just wrong."
In a phone interview, Huckabee, 52, asserted that he left Arkansas a stronger state when term limits forced him out of office in January -- with improved highways, more accountable schools, low unemployment, and an $800-million budget surplus. He also stood by his conservative credentials.
"I'd put mine against anybody's on that Republican stage," he said.
His achievements were won in the face of an often-vigorous Democratic opposition that controlled the Legislature throughout his governorship. At times it seemed he was "getting it from both sides," said Ann Clemmer, a Republican and Huckabee supporter who teaches political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "I think he did a lot just on his own -- really on his own counsel. And in that regard I think you have to say he was a leader."
Huckabee hails from President Clinton's hometown of Hope, and his political career has played out in Clinton's shadow. In 1993, voters narrowly elected Huckabee to replace Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who succeeded to the governorship when Clinton was elected president. Huckabee became governor three years later, when Tucker resigned after being found guilty of two felonies as part of the Whitewater investigation involving the business dealings of Bill and Hillary Clinton and others.
To observers like Rex Nelson, a former political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Huckabee represented a welcome change.
"I think everybody wanted some calm, some stability," said Nelson, who signed on as Huckabee's press secretary in 1996 and served for nine years.
Arkansans eventually turned their attention away from Whitewater and the Clintons, and toward the teetotaling preacher who had once led Baptist congregations in Pine Bluff and Texarkana. Then, as now, Huckabee put his religious convictions front and center. Early on, he developed a mode of governing that seemed to be both expedient and from the heart.