Political consultant Dick Morris, who also worked for Bill Clinton, advised Huckabee in his first race for lieutenant governor. He told Huckabee that to succeed in Arkansas, he should avoid acting like a "country club" Republican who only represented the rich.
Morris also recalled saying to Huckabee: "I assume you're against parole for violent criminals, because you're a conservative." Huckabee told Morris that he would hold open the possibility of parole because he believed, in some cases, in the power of forgiveness, Morris said.
To Morris, such attitudes make Huckabee a new kind of religious candidate -- one who is "a New Testament conservative, in addition to an Old Testament one."
"He puts all of the Bible into play," Morris said. "It's not just 'thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not,' but it's the positive aspects of his religion, too -- which is 'love thy neighbor,' and 'when I was naked you clothed me,' and a sense of helping poor people."
Shortly after he became governor, Huckabee expressed his support for the release of a convicted rapist -- who, once freed, sexually assaulted another woman and killed her. Wayne Dumond had been sentenced to life plus 20 years in 1984 for raping a 17-year-old cheerleader. Tucker, Huckabee's predecessor, reduced Dumond's sentence in 1992, making him eligible for parole.
In 1996, according to the Democrat-Gazette, Huckabee questioned Dumond's guilt and said he might commute his sentence to time served. He also met with the parole board in a closed session. Some board members have said Huckabee pressured them into releasing Dumond; others said he did not.
Dumond was released from prison in October 1999. He chose his next victim 11 months later.
Huckabee's Democratic opponent, Jimmie Lou Fisher, seized on the issue in the 2002 governor's race, and Dumond's first victim campaigned on Fisher's behalf. Huckabee's campaign ran ads blaming his predecessor for commuting the sentence. Fisher was considered a weak candidate; Huckabee was reelected with 53% of the vote.
In other instances, Huckabee's political instincts seemed sharper. Soon after taking office, he began to lobby strongly for a one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund state parks and conservation efforts. The measure required the approval of voters, and Huckabee, an avid outdoorsman, advertised the effort by touring the Arkansas River on his bass boat -- a public relations gambit that garnered significant positive press for both the governor and the measure, which voters approved in 1996.
The tax has generated more than $400 million. Arkansas created a 4,800-acre prairie conservation center, built four nature centers and upgraded its parks.
But Huckabee also referred to environmentalists as "environmental wackos." Glen Hooks, regional representative for the state Sierra Club chapter and a former head of the state Democratic Party, said that Huckabee's environmental record was weak overall.
As a presidential candidate, however, Huckabee talks about being "a good steward to the Earth" and argues that Christians have a duty to fight global warming.
"If he's coming around now, I'm encouraged," Hooks said.
Huckabee also latched on early to the idea of expanding government health insurance to cover children of working-class people who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid. The Arkansas plan, called ARKids First, was a forerunner to the federal government's State Children's Health Insurance Program. Huckabee introduced it to the Legislature in January 1997. It received bipartisan support, and Huckabee became its biggest advocate. He signed the bill into law with a crayon, surrounded by children. He then made TV ads encouraging families to sign up.
Rhonda Sanders of the nonprofit group Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families said the results had been dramatic. According to a report by the University of Minnesota, the percentage of uninsured children in Arkansas dropped from 22% in 1997 to 9% in 2004 -- the largest percentage-point drop of any state in the nation.
As Huckabee's stock rises in the Republican primaries, conservatives are looking closely at his record on taxes. The Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group, has been running ads against Huckabee, harshly criticizing his record and portraying him as "Tax-Hike Mike."'
Huckabee has responded by calling the group the "Club for Greed." He says that in addition to supporting tax increases as governor, he also called for a $90.6-million cut in income taxes -- and other smaller, more narrowly targeted tax cuts. He defends his record as that of a pragmatic governor trying to meet the needs of a poor, underdeveloped state.
More recently, Huckabee has veered back toward the party line: He signed a no-tax-hike pledge that had been presented to the candidates by Americans for Tax Reform, another conservative group. Grover Norquist, its president, said Huckabee's pledge would carry more weight if he disavowed his past decisions to raise taxes.