Monday, October 29, 2007

A bitter fight is taking place behind the scenes over Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.

Influential conservatives are clashing over whether Mr. Huckabee is capable of keeping evangelicals from fleeing the GOP to form a third party or if he’s too liberal fiscally for the Republican electorate.

The battle is bubbling into the public arena, fueled by fears that a three-way race could hand the presidency to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or another Democrat, and by murmurs of Mr. Huckabee as a vice-presidential candidate on the party’s ticket.

“We called him a pro-life, pro-gun liberal, when I was in the state legislature and he was governor,” said Randy Minton, chairman of the Arkansas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly’s national Eagle Forum.

Mr. Minton voices the concerns of many conservatives that while Mr. Huckabee governed as a social conservative in opposing abortion and same-sex “marriage,” he was a treacherous liberal on taxes, social welfare spending and illegal immigration.

But Mr. Huckabee’s backers say he’s just who the conservative party leaders should be looking to if they hope to prevent a dangerous fracture.

“The talk of a third party is not only political suicide, it is political homicide, with Hillary a co-sponsor of the so-called ‘Freedom of Choice Act’ that would wipe off every pro-life law from parental notice to the ban on partial-birth abortions in all 50 states,” said Christian radio talk-show host Janet L. Folger.

“Do you know another Republican besides Huckabee who got 48 percent of the African-American vote?” she said. “Add to that a mobilized Republican base, and there is no one better than Huckabee to take on Hillary.”

Kelly J. Shackelford, president of the Free Market Foundation, said the former Arkansas governor “doesn’t just talk about conservative issues, he breathes them and has a passion for them.”

The fight is only growing more bitter as Mr. Huckabee’s poll numbers and reception improve.

Mrs. Schlafly, one of the most respected leaders in the social-conservative movement, has accused Mr. Huckabee of “destroying” the conservative movement in Arkansas and leaving the GOP “in shambles.” She says many of the evangelical Christians who “sold” social conservative voters on President Bush in 2000 are now “trying to sell us on Mike Huckabee.”

Critics want to block consideration of Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, as a running mate for Rudolph W. Giuliani, the pro-choice former New York mayor, or for Mitt Romney, a Mormon and former Massachusetts governor.

Most annoying to some conservatives are Mr. Huckabee’s positions on immigration. For many Republicans, immigration is the deal-breaker in judging which candidate is worthy of support.

“Rudy Giuliani spent years defending the right of New York City to remain a sanctuary for illegal aliens. Yet Giuliani was a veritable Lou Dobbs Jr. on illegal immigration in comparison to Mike Huckabee,” said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a Springfield, Va., lobbying group. Mr. Dobbs is a CNN commentator who pursues a tough line against amnesty for illegal aliens.

“Huckabee’s principles regarding illegal immigration seem to vary depending upon his physical location,” Mr. Boulet said. “When in Iowa, presidential candidate Huckabee talks tough on border security. But for years in Arkansas, Governor Huckabee talked even tougher when anyone dared complain about the costs of illegal immigration.”

Not so, said Mrs. Folger.

“Huckabee is not only right on the prerequisites of life and marriage, but said ‘no’ to amnesty and sanctuary cities and wants to secure the borders before we ‘even discuss anything else.’ He gets it,” said Mrs. Folger, president of Faith2 Action.

Mr. Minton thinks Mr. Huckabee is trying to remake his image on immigration.

“Until of late, he has been an open-borders guy on immigration — amnesty, the whole works,” Mr. Minton said. “As governor, he wanted to give free college scholarships to all illegals.”

Arkansas conservatives also do not regard Mr. Huckabee as a “fiscally conservative Republican” and see him as a “tax and spender,” said Mr. Minton, a former state lawmaker.

Mr. Huckabee got pummeled by critics on the right when he resorted to tax increases in Arkansas to meet social needs in his state, he told The Washington Times afterward.

This month, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s largest-circulation newspaper, published a report on Mr. Huckabee’s fiscal record, nothing that he “boasts of 90 tax cuts during his tenure, which ended in January.”

But the paper’s own review showed a “net tax increase of $505 million, a figure adjusted for inflation and economic growth, according to the [Arkansas] Department of Finance and Administration.”

Mr. Huckabee, however, can claim getting one of the largest tax reductions in state history through the legislature, totaling about $90.6 million in its first full year in effect.

Until recently, he had refused to sign the famous no-tax pledge offered to candidates by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Mr. Norquist, who is neutral on the presidential nomination, said: “The most important thing Huckabee can do is help Republicans to keep that Senate. He is the only Republican in Arkansas who can beat a Democrat for the Senate.”

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