Propelled by little more than his message and political skills, Republican presidential contender former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has vaulted into a statistical dead heat for first place in crucial, first-in-the-nation caucus state Iowa, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Huckabee's surge is equal parts size and intensity, having gained considerable ground among key parts of the GOP base in the Hawkeye state — evangelicals, conservatives, weekly churchgoers and abortion opponents — with 50 percent of his supporters "very enthusiastic" about him, compared with 28 percent of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's supporters.
The affable underdog achieved all this on a shoestring budget with little national infrastructure and close to no support from the Republican establishment.
"The people of Iowa are pretty savvy when it comes to politics," Huckabee told ABC News in an interview. "They are folks who, you know, they auction their cattle, but not their presidential candidates. And so just because somebody's gone in there and spent a bunch of money doesn't necessarily mean the people of Iowa say, 'He's my guy.'"
Huckabee, who placed second in the Iowa Straw Poll in August, suggested that for the last "11 months, everybody's been writing my political obituary each month, saying, 'He can't go on, he can't go on, he doesn't have enough money.' And here I am, tied. I mean, that's not supposed to happen. But it's happening because Americans are electing a president, not somebody who's going to head the fundraising for the United Way."
He insisted that with a successful showing in Iowa Jan. 3, he would have sufficient staff "from the momentum of Iowa, through the next few states, in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Michigan and Nevada" to win the nomination.
"People forget that presidential campaigns are … if they're anything, about momentum," Huckabee said. "And if you have momentum, you'll get the money. You can have money, but if you don't have any momentum, then you'll end up like President Phil Gramm or President Ross Perot or President Steve Forbes."
Is He Electable?
Huckabee's hurdle today remains the same one he faced last week when despite his more ardent opposition to legal abortion he lost the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee to former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson: Few Americans are convinced he can actually win the White House.
In fact, only 42 percent of Huckabee's supporters in Iowa think he's going to be elected president.
"That's the hurdle I've had since the beginning, and it's also the one that's being erased by every month's standings getting better," Huckabee said. This kind of poll gives more people reason to think, 'Hmm, the guy could win.'"
In 1979, Huckabee says, Ronald Reagan was in fourth place in polls. "He was flat broke. They were living three to a hotel room, eating peanut butter, and nobody thought he had a chance. He had upset the Republican establishment. He certainly wasn't their candidate, and it looked like that he wasn't going anywhere. Now people talk about, 'Oh, the inevitable Ronald Reagan' — but that's not what was going on back at this particular point in time."
Huckabee says he was surprised by Thompson's securing of the NRLC endorsement. "I mean, he's lobbied for a pro-abortion group in the past," he said. "His right-to-life score card was 33 percent one year, 76 percent one year, 88 percent, never was 100 percent. He doesn't support the human life amendment, which is the linchpin, not just of the right-to-life movement, but it's been part of the GOP platform since 1980, for 28 years. So it just didn't match up."
Moreover, Huckabee says, he's beating Thompson in polls of Republican voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
As Huckabee's fortunes have risen, his opponents have increasingly targeted him. "He's a good man, but he's a pro-life liberal," Thompson said last week. "You look at his taxes in the state. You look at what he said about immigration."
Quipped Huckabee at the time, "I know the Writers Guild is on strike, but he really needs to get some better lines."
But Huckabee's clearly more focused on defeating Romney, with whom he's tied in Iowa and who leads considerably in New Hampshire. Veiled digs at the former Massachusetts governor are peppered throughout his pitch.
Iowans, he told ABC News, "believe what I'm telling them, to be true, true to my own heart and convictions, that I'm not just saying something that a focus group gave me or a room full of consultants handed me in the form of a script and said, 'Hey, if you want to be president, go out and say this stuff. People will buy it.'"
Voters, he said, "know that what I'm saying is what I truly believe. It comes out of my heart. I don't have to wonder, 'What did I say last week?' Because I'm going to say the same thing."
Romney, Huckabee said, is "going to have to convince voters that he's really had conversions" on issues ranging from abortion to gay rights.
Many evangelicals have expressed concern about Romney's Mormonism, which some consider a cult. When asked whether Mormonism is Christianity, Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, said, "I don't know enough about Mormonism to know. I really have a hard enough time practicing my faith. I'm not going to try to practice somebody else's."
And he insists his campaign has nothing to do with push-poll phone calls in Iowa and New Hampshire in which negative information about Mormonism and Romney.
"The one great thing about not having a whole lot of money: Nobody can accuse me of wasting it making a bunch of phone calls like that," Huckabee said. "So, no, we had nothing to do with it. We don't have enough money to attack other people. We're just trying to get my message out, not tear somebody else down." He added "one of the reasons we're doing well in Iowa is because I've focused on what I stand for, not what some other candidates stand against."
'Tax Hike Mike'?
There is now greater scrutiny of what Huckabee, who served as governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007, has stood for. During his gubernatorial tenure, for instance, the state experienced a net tax increase of more than $500 million, the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration reports, with the tax burden for the average Arkansan increasing by almost $1,000. These included an increase in gasoline, diesel and cigarette taxes, as well as an increase in the sales tax.
The economic conservatives at the Club for Growth have been unsparing in their criticism of Huckabee, calling him "Tax Hike Mike" and running TV ads against him. The former governor has tried to blunt the criticism by arguing his hand was forced in some cases by state needs, State Supreme Court decisions, federal mandates and a Democratic legislature; he has as a presidential candidate signed a no-new-taxes pledge.
"The federal government is not in a position where it lacks resources," Huckabee said. "It's not that our taxes are too low at the federal level. Our spending is too high."
Huckabee adds that there's "something I did as a governor that Congress doesn't do, I actually balanced the budget every year that I was governor. And we did that with making sure that we paid our bills as they came. That's our law, and we followed it, to letter."
He said, "The fact that I managed government effectively is the most important issue."
'Grinding Their Heel in the Face of a 6-Year-Old Child'
As for the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, of paramount concern to Iowa Republicans, Huckabee's opponents have pointed out that as governor he supported free prenatal care for pregnant illegal immigrants as well as scholarships for the children of illegal immigrants, if academically eligible.
How would he explain those views to voters angry about illegal immigrants?
"People are mad about illegal immigration because it's illegal," Huckabee said. "They're made because the federal government has shown just how dysfunctional it is."
He pledged to secure the border and end sanctuary city policies, "but I wouldn't punish the children who didn't commit a crime. … If a child is gasping for air, asthmatic, and he's on the hospital steps, what do the other candidates suggest we do? Let him sit there and gasp until he doesn't have any air left and he dies?"
"If your government at the federal government is so incompetent that it fails to secure the border, you don't then grind your heel into the face of a 6-year-old child over it. That's not what this country does. We're a better country than that. Now, if that causes people to say, 'Well, I'm not going to vote for him,' fine. There are plenty of candidates out there who I guess would grind their heel in the face of a 6-year-old child. Not me."
'It Could Be Another 10,000 Years Before the End of the World Comes'
As a former Baptist preacher and president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from 1989 to 1991, Huckabee proudly says that his faith informs his politics.
Huckabee says the church he attends in Little Rock is modeled after the Saddleback Church in California, led by the popular Rev. Rick Warren — with whom Huckabee attended seminary — and he suggests he sides with Warren in the chasm between those more traditional members of the so-called Christian right, and those who think evangelicals should focus on other issues beyond abortion and same-sex marriage.
"I think it's appropriate to talk about things like traditional marriage and the sanctity of life," Huckabee said. "But I also think we've got to talk about hunger and poverty and housing. We've got to talk about disease, not just AIDS but chronic disease and how it touches us, how it disrupts our economy as well as our lives and our future."
Having just secured the endorsement of Tim LaHaye, the author of the popular "Left Behind" series of books that fictionalize the "End of Days" scenario foretold in the Book of Revelation, Huckabee says unlike many evangelicals, he would not govern or suggest policy having to do with the Middle East in anything other than geopolitical terms.
"You don't impose religious viewpoints," he said. "And, frankly, I don't know how things are going to turn out. I really don't. I think the older I get, the less absolute I am about 'here's the way it's all going to line up.' It could be another 10,000 years before the end of the world comes. You know, as long as there's been a Christian church, every generation thought they were the last one. I came to the conclusion that I needed to live as if it's all going to end tomorrow, but also to believe that it may be another million years before it comes to a conclusion."
Huckabee's pitch is conservative, but he insists he would appeal to Democrats and independents as well.
"I think it's the country has to believe in itself again," he said. "Right now what's really tearing this country apart is that Democrats and Republicans act like that there's nothing upon which they can agree and there's nowhere they can go together. And the first thing that has to happen with the next president is reminding that we are one nation, and we have to start acting like it."
Before that can happen, however, Huckabee says he's prepared for some tough battles in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Already some rivals' campaigns have pointed to allegations of ethics issues he had as governor, including a wedding gift registry he and his wife of more than 30 years put together as he was leaving the governor's mansion.
"As we were leaving office, some of my wife's friends, about 30 of them, were going to put together a housewarming party for her," Huckabee said, pooh-poohing the controversy. "This was not open to the general public. It was invitation-only, about 30 people from our church, some of her friends from high school, close friends she was in a prayer group with. And the newspaper got wind of it, and they tried to make some big scandalous deal out of it."
"So if the worst thing that can be said about the Huckabees is that my wife had some friends from high school and church and from a prayer group that wanted to do something in her last month as first lady, you know," he said with a smile, "I have a feeling there's going to be other candidates with bigger scandals than that."