Is Huckabee Democrats’ Biggest Nightmare?

Found this at The Washington Post:

Chris Cillizza's Politics Blog -- The Fix’s Politics Blog

Is Huckabee Democrats’ Biggest Nightmare?

Mike Huckabee‘s rapid rise in the Republican presidential race is prompting concern among some Democratic strategists who believe that the former Arkansas governor could become a daunting general election foe should he secure the GOP nomination.

These operatives believe that Huckabee’s profile — former Baptist minister, southern governor, fitness preacher — and self-effacing style on the stump could prove an appealing combination for moderate and independent voters.

“Mike Huckabee is the Republican that probably worries me the most,” said Wooten Johnson, a Democratic strategist based in Louisiana. “Unlike the other Republicans, he isn’t flawed in the eyes of the Republican base. But more importantly, he has a record of being a true compassionate conservative. He will be able to attract those suburban voters that don’t want to vote for [a] Democrat.”

John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster based in Alabama, offered a similar sentiment about Huckabee: “He is the type of person who plays well in both a People Magazine profile, on Leno and in debates,” said Anzalone. “Real people seem to see a bit of themselves in Huck, and I think he will be difficult to demonize.”

Anzalone added that while he was not “terrified” of a Huckabee candidacy, he could “see [the former governor] hitting a chord with the public beyond primary voters.”

For months, Democrats have been game-planning for what a general election would look like against one of four possible candidates: Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson. But Huckabee’s recent surge in (and nationally) has forced Democrats to consider the prospect of facing off against him next November.

There is little empirical evidence to help guide their way. The lone poll that matched Huckabee against any of the leading Democratic candidates in a hypothetical general election match-up was conducted by NBC/Wall Street Journal in early September. It showed Hillary Rodham Clinton leading Huckabee 50 percent to 36 percent. (So sparse is polling matching Huckabee against the Democratic field that Real Clear Politics doesn’t even include him in its list of potential general election match-ups.)

With so little to guide the way, the best way to figure out what sort of general election candidate Huckabee might be is to look back at the races he has run in Arkansas.

Huckabee’s first foray into elective office was an unsuccessful one. In 1992, he took on Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) and, even then, his penchant for one-liners was apparent. “We need to give the people of Arkansas a senator who does more than talk cornbread and catfish in Arkansas but votes Kennedy and Cranston in Washington,” Huckabee said on the stump that year. Huckabee was outspent at by a two-to-one margin and lost the race 60 percent to 40 percent — in the same year fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton was winning the White House at the top of the ticket.

Huckabee was back less than a year later when he ran in a special election to fill the vacant lieutenant governor’s job. (Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat, had ascended to the governorship following Clinton’s presidential victory.) Huckabee’s opponent was Little Rock attorney Nate Coulter (D), who had managed Bumpers’s successful campaign the previous year. Huckabee won with 51 percent, becoming the first Republican to win a statewide post in Arkansas since 1980.

Elected to the largely ceremonial post — the only official role for the lieutenant governor is to open Senate sessions and stand in for the governor when he is out of the state — Huckabee quickly used the office to raise his profile in the state. As a result, he cruised to a win over state Sen. Charlie Cole Chaffin (D) to claim a full, four-year term in November 1994 — piling up the largest percentage of the vote (59 percent) of any Arkansas Republican running for statewide office in a century.

The retirement announcement by Sen. David Pryor (D) in 1995 gave Huckabee another chance to move up the political food chain. He announced for the 1996 open-seat race, but fate intervened in the form of Jim Guy Tucker’s criminal conviction and subsequent resignation in July 1996. Huckabee, at age 40, was suddenly the governor.

In 1998, Gov. Huckabee faced attorney Bill Bristow, whose client list included Danny Ferguson, the Arkansas state trooper who was a co-defendant with Bill Clinton in Paula Jones’s sexual harassment case. Bristow sought to paint Huckabee as an extremist, arguing that the incumbent favored women being paid less than men for equal work and believed women should be subservient to their husbands. It didn’t work, as Huckabee won the governorship in his own right with 60 percent of the vote.

Four years later, Huckabee seemed on cruise control to reelection, as a series of big-name Democrats took a pass, including Mike Beebe, the state’s current governor. The eventual Democratic choice was state Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher, who was a surprisingly strong candidate. Huckabee didn’t help his own cause; his support for the release of convicted rapist Wayne DuMond — who raped and murdered a woman a month after being paroled in 1999 — became a major issue and gave Fisher an angle to question the incumbent’s judgment. She also battered Huckabee for accepting gifts from political supporters. He escaped — barely, taking 53 percent of the vote to Fisher’s 47 percent.

What lessons can Democrats learn from Huckabee’s past political career? First and foremost, painting him as an extremist just doesn’t work. While Huckabee is likely more conservative than the average voter, he doesn’t come across as a fire-breathing conservative, and Democrats seeking to paint him as such have come up short before.

“What he says is deeply reactionary, but his affability may take the edge off the harshness of his world-view,” said Matt Bennett, a former Clinton administration official now affiliated with Third Way.

If history is a guide, the best way to attack Huckabee is on his record. Obviously, the DuMond case is generating considerable talk at the moment and could well slow Huckabee’s rise. His record on taxes and spending — prime fodder for his Republican rivals — might actually play somewhat well in a general election, however, as polls show the American public swinging back to the view that government can play a constructive role in their daily lives.

The biggest argument against Huckabee could well be that his decade of service in Arkansas ill-prepares him to deal with a post-Sept. 11 world — a fascinating twist given that John Kerry’s loss in 2004 was largely blamed on voters’ doubts about his ability to keep them safe.

“Former governors of Arkansas may have made fine general election candidates pre-9/11, but it’s hard to see how Huckabee makes us feel safe and protected,” said Democratic media consultant Jennifer Burton.

So, there are clearly lines of attack available to Democrats if Huckabee becomes the nominee. But the current trepidation about that prospect speaks to just how much of an unknown variable Huckabee represents in the presidential race.

Huckabee is not easily caricatured — either as a rabid conservative or a partisan warrior. During the Republican primary so far he has proven himself an adept debater, effective speaker and, perhaps most importantly, someone who has been able to run a strong campaign with very little money or organization.

Should Huckabee wind up as the GOP nominee, the traditional Democratic playbook might well have to be rewritten to cope with his unorthodox approach. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but rather that he poses a unique challenge to Democratic strategists.

By Chris Cillizza | December 6, 2007; 5:30 AM ET


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