Another flawed front-runner for GOP

December 14, 2007|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- Aren't you beginning to feel just a little sympathy for Republicans? It's less than a month to the first vote. The Democrats are suffering from an embarrassment of riches. The Republicans are suffering an embarrassment. The only commitment problems Democrats are having are between appealing suitors. The Republicans, on the other hand, have the wedding date saved, the room picked, and they're still speed-dating.

The men keep coming, one after the next, making a pitch and missing. Candidate No. 1: John McCain, the man who says what he thinks even if it isn't popular. But it often isn't popular. Next!

Candidate No. 2: Rudolph W. Giuliani, the tough guy from New York. But the thrice-married former mayor can't get beyond Ground Zero. Next!

Candidate No. 3: Fred Thompson, the actor and politician. But folksy Fred isn't playing Ronald Reagan, he's playing Sleepy - or is it Grumpy? Next!

Candidate No. 4: Mitt Romney, the smoothie endorsed by National Review as the "full-spectrum conservative." Alas, he's covered the spectrum by flip-flopping his way across the rainbow. Next!

Now Mike Huckabee is jogging over to the table. The (second) man from Hope has risen in the polls as fast as a wedding cake in the oven. He's this week's front-runner for the uncharacteristically fickle GOP.

I confess to a certain weakness for Mr. Huckabee, the sort of weakness that women admit for a man who makes them laugh. The affable pastor, the "recovering foodaholic," the bass guitarist for Capitol Offense, Mr. Huckabee once actually trademarked the name "Positive Alternatives."

In his mocking ad with Chuck Norris, in his populist posture on poverty, in his green-ish talk of being a good steward of the Earth, he's presented himself as the positive alternative.

Mr. Huckabee's books include a 12-stop (yes, stop) program for weight loss and a 12-stop program for a better nation. If Mr. Huckabee could morph the two and run on a platform that promised "Vote For Me and You'll Lose Weight," he'd be unstoppable.

But this man of the hour - or the minute - is selling himself as this year's compassionate conservative. And even in the speed-dating world, there's time for a second glance.

Mr. Huckabee may "drink a different kind of Jesus juice," as he says. But that hasn't stopped him from selling himself on TV as a "Christian leader" - compared with, say, a Mormon leader. In Wednesday's Des Moines Register debate, he said the most important thing was to bridge the great divides in the country. But that's the same man who once said we have to "take this nation back for Christ."

His comments about educating illegal immigrants - "we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did" - brought him kudos. But he looked less kind and gentle accepting the endorsement of border vigilante Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project.

As for social issues? Mr. Huckabee's tone has evolved a bit, which is notable since he doesn't believe in evolution. He frames himself as a politician whose pro-life stance doesn't begin at conception and end at birth. But he's long been an anti-abortion absolutist.

Mr. Huckabee may now preach against intolerance toward gays. He told the Values Voter Summit: "I want us to be very careful that we don't come across as having some animosity or hatred toward people." But his own animosity dates back to a 1992 pitch against an "aberrant, unnatural and sinful lifestyle" and in favor of quarantining AIDS patients.

And let's remember that the pastor-politician signed on to the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention statement that "a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."

All this may help him court the evangelical voters who make up 45 percent of Iowa's Republican caucus voters, but are they ready to hitch up with the man who missed the intelligence report on Iran? The man who is a blank slate on foreign policy?

And what of the culturally valued but ethically challenged governor behind the guitar who took endless gifts from his supporters, including 50 percent off hamburgers at Wendy's?

Mr. Huckabee said that Americans are "willing to forgive people for their ideology if they have optimism and vision." He could be right. That's what sold the last compassionate conservative. Remember him?

Next!

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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