Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s hopes for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination have been dealt a major blow by his 9-year-old decision to commute the sentence of Maurice Clemmons - the man suspected of killing four police officers near Seattle early Sunday.
“It will be extremely damaging,” said Diana Banister, a Washington-based publicist for Republican causes and candidates. “His GOP primary rivals will use it to their advantage against him.”
Mr. Huckabee, who has led in some early polls for the Republican nomination, faced similar questions during the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses over the case of Wayne DuMond, another Arkansas convict to whom he offered clemency in 1997 and who subsequently was convicted of murdering a woman in Missouri.
“It will be the Republican version of the Willie Horton issue that GOP surrogates used against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in 1988,” Ms. Banister said.
Mr. Dukakis’ decision to furlough Horton, who committed rape and battery while free from prison, was prominently played up in ads by Vice President George H.W. Bush on his way to a decisive victory in the 1988 campaign.
“I’ve always thought Huckabee is probably not a conservative,” said New York-based Republican campaign consultant Jim McLaughlin. “Whether it’s immigration, taxes or now this - he’s shown really poor judgment.”
Many conservative Web sites also have taken Mr. Huckabee to task in the wake of the Washington state slayings.
“This is going to be extremely problematic for Gov. Huckabee,” wrote RedState.com contributor Erick Erickson.
“Of course, a lot of folks said [DuMond] was ‘Mike Huckabee’s Willie Horton.’ How many Willie Hortons can one man have?” he asked.
Mr. Huckabee, in a statement issued Sunday, expressed sympathy for the victims and their families but deflected blame from his 2000 decision that expedited the release of Clemmons, who remained at large Monday despite a massive manhunt.
“Should he be found to be responsible for this horrible tragedy, it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington State,” the statement said.
In a “Fox News Sunday” TV interview, the former Arkansas governor - who hosts his own show on Fox News Channel - sounded undecided whether to repeat his 2008 bid for the Republican nomination. He said he was “less likely” to run in 2012 because he was enjoying hosting his television show.
In 2008, Mr. Huckabee was the target of criticism from certain evangelical leaders, neoconservatives and traditional conservatives for what became known as his “Wayne DuMond problem,” as well as his suspect positions on such issues as Islamic terrorism, illegal immigration and taxes.
His forgiving nature and seemingly natural beneficence have come back to haunt him politically on more than one occasion.
Democrats have been content to let the press and Mr. Huckabee’s conservative allies excoriate him.
“The Democrats would love to see him as the Republicans nominee,” said Bill Pascoe, a veteran Republican campaign operative for 20 years. But, he added, the liberal, Democratic-leaning Huffington Post “is killing him as we speak. Somebody at Huffington will need commutation after this because they are committing political murder.”
Mr. Pascoe said former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Catholic and a favorite of evangelical voters, may be best positioned to benefit from Mr. Huckabee’s latest political woes.
“A Santorum bid, were it to take place, would be premised on a strong showing in Iowa, where evangelicals are big,” he said. “In any event, the Democratic National Committee will want to see Huckabee as nominee and then do a Willie Horton on him.”
One problem for Mr. Huckabee is that he commuted Clemmons’ sentence, according to the Seattle Times, “over the protests of prosecutors.”
Mr. Huckabee argued that Clemmons, in getting authorities to commute his original sentence, became eligible for parole, which the parole board then granted him. Even when the authorities later arrested him for parole violations and reincarcerated him for what was to be his full term, prosecutors elected to drop the very charges for which he was being held.
Clemmons also had been jailed on a child-rape charge in Washington but reportedly was released on bond a week ago.
Mr. Huckabee argued that Clemmons, despite demonstrating criminal and psychotic behavior, was not locked up by either state.
The political damage, combined with the lingering fallout from the DuMond case, already may have been done.
Last year, many on the right made life difficult for Mr. Huckabee on a series of issues. Conservatives complained that, as Arkansas governor from 1996 to 2007, he presided over one of the largest tax increases the state had seen.
But the folksy style of the ordained Southern Baptist minister has also proved potent on the stump, and he finished second to eventual Republican nominee Sen. John McCain in the race for delegates in 2008.