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Mike Huckabee's no Charlie Sheen, but made himself heard this week nonetheless

With comments on Natalie Portman's pregnancy and President Obama's origins, Mike Huckabee placed himself squarely in the political spotlight as speculation intensifies about his plans for a 2012 presidential candidacy. Could he be challenging Sarah Palin for the social conservative vote?

March 04, 2011|By James Oliphant, Washington Bureau
  • Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at the National Press Club in Washington.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at the National Press Club in… (Alex Brandon / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Mike Huckabee going all "Black Swan" on Natalie Portman was the capper to what's been an interesting and attention-getting week for the possible 2012 presidential candidate.

Along with criticizing the Hollywood star's pregnancy, Huckabee reignited the eternally simmering debate in conservative circles about President Obama's origins, first by claiming the president grew up in Kenya and then by making a disparaging reference to Obama and madrassas.

Huckabee's seeming full-on embrace of the Republican Party's most controversial elements didn't begin with those remarks, however. In February, at the height of the crisis in Egypt, the former Arkansas governor traveled to Israel and unapologetically restated his opposition to Palestinian settlements on any Israeli land, including occupied territories, labeling any other view as "racism."

His slap at Portman, who recently won an Academy Award (and prominently displayed her "baby bump," as the supermarket mags put it, at the ceremony), came on conservative critic Michael Medved's radio show. He accused Portman, who is in a relationship but isn't married, of glamorizing single motherhood.

"People see a Natalie Portman who boasts, 'We're not married but we're having these children and they're doing just fine,'" Huckabee said. "I think it gives a distorted image. It's unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out-of-wedlock children."

Huckabee's point, apparently, was that Portman has the resources to hire help to care for her child — while other mothers who may follow her example, do not.

"Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can't get a job, and if it weren't for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have healthcare," he said. "And that's the story that we're not seeing."

Of course, it took critics (many of them on Twitter) about 12 seconds to point out that Huckabee just as easily could have called out Bristol Palin, another celebrity single mom, whose memoir "Not Afraid of Life" will be released in June by a major publishing house.

(And if you're feeling a twinge of nostalgia, it was almost 20 years ago that then-Vice President Dan Quayle slammed TV's fictional Murphy Brown, played by Candace Bergen, for having a child while unmarried. Feel free to pull out that Nirvana album.)

Huckabee, who is also promoting a new book, "A Simple Government," has retaken the spotlight even as speculation about his presidential ambitions have ramped up. And if he is, indeed, plotting a presidential strategy, he may see an opening for a strong social conservative in the race.

His primary rival in that regard would seem to be Bristol's mother, Sarah Palin. If Palin doesn't get in, Huckabee may hope to have a lock on that segment of the GOP. (Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich are also avidly chasing the religious vote.

Huckabee has long been popular with religious conservatives. A former Southern Baptist pastor, he surprised many by winning the Iowa caucuses three years ago primarily on the strength of that appeal.

But what has confused veteran Huck-watchers about his latest series of interviews is that the former governor has carried somewhat of a reputation for pragmatism and straight talk, often acting as a contrarian within the GOP. In fact, his record in Arkansas has always alarmed budget hawks and "tea-partiers," who contend Huckabee raised taxes during his two terms.

That pragmatic streak showed itself more recently, first when Huckabee cautioned his fellow Republicans that Obama would be much tougher to beat than they believe. Second, when he supported Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign in the face of relentless conservative sniping over the first lady's efforts.

But much of that was lost this week when Huckabee made his remark about Kenya to a conservative radio host — and then accused Obama of being anti-British and anti-Israel. His camp later said Huckabee misspoke; he had meant to say the president grew up in Indonesia. (Obama lived there for four years as a youth. But that didn't fully explain why Huckabee referred to the Kenyan Mau Mau Revolution and British imperialism in his critique.)

Two days later, Huckabee doubled down in another interview, suggesting the president had different values than mainstream America. "I have said many times, publicly, that I do think he has a different worldview, and I think it's in part molded out of a very different experience," Huckabee said. "Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings, and you know, our communities were filled with Rotary clubs, not madrassas."

Pressed on CNN on Thursday, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Huckabee need not apologize to the president for the remark, saying "he can have his own opinion."

"I can't speak for where Mike Huckabee is coming from, I wouldn't pretend to try, and it's not my position to do that," Priebus said.

The madrassa line of attack has followed Obama since his early days as a presidential candidate, when some conservatives suggested that while in Indonesia, he was educated at an anti-Western Islamic school.

The Chicago Tribune dispatched a reporter to Jakarta in 2007, who found that Obama attended a Catholic school and a public school during his time in Indonesia. At the public school, teachers and students wore Western-style clothing.

Huckabee's endgame remains unclear. He has suggested that he's still months away from deciding whether to jump into the presidential race. If he does, as with Gingrich and Santorum this week, his relationship with Fox News, where he hosts a weekly show, will likely be terminated. Beyond being a prolific author, he also does radio commentary for ABC and is a frequent speaker.

But if Huckabee does enter the field, this week may have given some hint to the kind of no-holds-barred campaign he will run.

james.oliphant@latimes.com

twitter: @jamesoliphant

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