- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

VAN METER, Iowa (AP)

Cradling a cup of coffee on his knee, the Rev. Paul Porter welcomes five neighbors to his home, leads them in a brief prayer and gets down to business.

“We’re here to help elect Mike Huckabee the next president of the United States,” he says. “He’s a decent, moral man.”

His neighbors nod their heads

“When you go to the caucuses,” Porter continues, “are there any questions about Mike Huckabee that you’re nervous about answering?”

Again, the heads nod.

“Is it the attacks?” he says. “Are you worried that he can’t withstand the attacks?”

Nan Cooley, a rail-thin woman who belongs to the Baptist church run by Porter, says yes she’s worried. “There are a lot of questions, you know.”

If Huckabee wins the Iowa caucuses tonight, it will be because of people like Porter and his neighbors. With no encouragement or even help from the bare-bones Huckabee campaign, they came together on a snowy night last week to get up the courage to caucus for the former Arkansas governor.

If he loses, it will because Huckabee’s intemperate performance in the campaign’s final days raised concerns in supporters like Porter who desperately wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Didn’t he raise a bunch of taxes in Arkansas?” Cooley asks Porter, leaning forward in her wooden dining room chair.

Yes, replies Porter, but he thinks taxes were mostly raised on tobacco and to improve Arkansas’ crummy road system. He read somewhere that Huckabee left the state with an $850 million surplus and the overall tax burden “barely inched up.”

A tall, bearded man sitting on the sofa clears his throat and says he heard Huckabee wanted to make children of illegal immigrants eligible for college scholarships. “What’s that all about?” Chris Power says, wrinkling his nose as if he’d just swallowed a bitter drink.

“Governor Huckabee said in the debate that he didn’t want to punish children for the sins of their parents,” Cooley replies. “I like that line.”

Porter notes that Huckabee recently proposed a tough immigration plan that would seal the nation’s borders. “There’s a difference, you know, between being governor and president,” he says.

Again, the heads all nod.

Something remarkable is happening here. Without realizing it, Porter and his pals are creating what political operatives call “talking points” for Huckabee. Theirs is an organically grown political defense, appropriately rooted in misinformation and misunderstanding.

Take, for instance, how the room reacts when Deb Sanford mentions the name Wayne DuMond, the convicted rapist who was paroled on Huckabee’s watch and later was charged with killing a woman.

“I hear that was Bill Clinton’s doing,” Cooley says. “I hear he commuted his sentence.”

She heard wrong. Clinton’s successor as governor, Democrat Jim Guy Tucker, reduced DuMond’s sentence and made him eligible for parole. Huckabee publicly called for DuMond’s freedom, and two members of the state parole board maintain that he pressured them to cut DuMond loose, a charge Huckabee denies.

Power dismisses the Huckabee connection, too.

“There was a lot of messed up stuff involving the Clintons,” he said.

A former Baptist minister, Huckabee is the only candidate in the field who might be able to win Iowa without a traditional political operation that organizes meetings like Porter’s. He is by no means the only preacher talking about Huckabee at their churches and in their homes. Huckabee also is the darling of the tightly knit group of parents who home-school their children.

But is that enough? There certainly isn’t much room for error, and Huckabee committed a big one this week when he cut a negative ad against rival Mitt Romney and decided at the last minute not to air it.

Almost a week after the gathering of his neighbors, Porter got an e-mail from the Huckabee campaign announcing the decision to pull the ad.

“I said, ‘OK, that’s great. Don’t run the ad.’” Porter said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“Then I heard that he did a news conference to show it to the press. I was disappointed with that,” he said. “I agree with what Mitt Romney said: It’s like saying you’re not going to call your opponent names but here’s the names I’d call him.”

Porter is still likely to back Huckabee, but the ad debacle stirred old questions.

“It kind of goes to what I thought of Huckabee in the past. There are some things I disagree with him about, but at the same time when I look at the big picture, I see him as somebody who would be a good, moral president,” he said.

“I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “But, you know, there are doubts.”

Doubts sowed by the candidate himself.

___

Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. “On Deadline” is an occasional column.

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