A long-serving, smooth-talking Arkansas governor with a checkered record and no foreign policy experience defies expectations to climb into the top tier of a presidential race.
Haven’t we seen this movie before?
You bet: Mike Huckabee’s rise in the Republican nomination fight is rekindling memories of Democrat Bill Clinton, circa 1992.
Though polar opposites in political ideology, these two men of Hope, Ark., came to the national stage with similar strengths and weaknesses. Huckabee hopes his measure of the former outweighs the burdens of the latter, as they did for twice-elected Clinton.
“One of the things that the Democrats certainly won’t be able to use against me is, ‘Hey, he’s the governor of Arkansas, what possible preparation does he have to be president?'” Huckabee said when asked about the Clinton comparison.
“That’s off the table, because their icon, their hero, the guy that they love to talk about as the greatest president in their lifetime, was the governor of Arkansas,” he told The Associated Press. “So I guess they’ll have to find something else.”
Oh, they will.
Huckabee has an extensive gubernatorial record that makes rivals foam at the mouth — from ethics complaints to tax increases to illegal immigration and his support for releasing a rapist who was later convicted of killing a Missouri woman.
Clinton’s baggage from Arkansas included tax increases, a broken child welfare system, rumors of infidelity and a small investment in a vacation home venture called Whitewater Development Corp.
Huckabee can rightfully brag about 10 1/2 years of achievement, including school improvements and health insurance for the children of working poor. Clinton served for 12 years, and had plenty of accomplishments, too.
But separating fact from fiction is never easy with these two; both Clinton and Huckabee tend to distort their records, exaggerating their accomplishments and denying their failures. They’re painfully thin-skinned toward critics.
RETAIL POLITICS: Clinton is the best handshake-to-handshake politician of his generation, if not ever. He can lock eyes on a person, wrap two of his hands around one of theirs and, with a soft, Southern drawl, convince any voter that he considers them the most important person in the room.
Huckabee is less a salesman and more a showman, but he’s nearly as effective as Clinton. On a recent campaign trip, Huckabee recognized the aunt of a supporter and, told that she liked country music, sang a brief ditty a capella.
He is funnier on his worst day than Clinton on his best, using a sense of humor to disarm critics.
Asked at this week’s debate about what Jesus would do with the death penalty, Huckabee quipped, “Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office.”
MESSAGE MEN: Huckabee and Clinton know how to boil complicated issues into accessible themes and sound bytes.
Clinton made the 1992 election about “the economy, stupid.” Curbing affirmative action became “mend it, don’t end it.” Kicking gays out of the military became “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In his 1996 re-election bid, Clinton spoke to voters’ anxieties about the future with his promise to “build a bridge to the 21st century.”
As for Huckabee, his background as a Baptist minister helped him deftly reframe a question about the Bible that had stumped his fellow Republicans in this week’s debate.
“There are parts of it I don’t fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite God, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it,” Huckabee said.
He also turned a credible attack on his immigration record into a rebuke of rival Mitt Romney. “In all due respect,” Huckabee said, “we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did.”
SOUTHERN POPULISTS: Clinton and Huckabee came from low- to middle-income families, and can speak with resonance to people living paycheck to paycheck.
Clinton famously felt voters’ pain in 1992 and pledged to fight for them until the “last dog dies.”
Huckabee stood out among a field of GOP doctrinarians during a debate this fall in suburban Detroit, where thousands are losing their jobs and homes. While his rivals coldly addressed the economy in terms of tax and budget cuts, Huckabee smoldered.
“I want to make sure people understand that for many people on this stage the economy’s doing terrifically well, but for a lot of Americans it’s not doing so well,” he said. “The people who handle the bags and make the beds at our hotels and serve the food, many of them are having to work two jobs. And that’s barely paying the rent.”
“And you know what else?” Huckabee said. “They don’t think that they can afford for their kids to go to college. They’re pretty sure they’re not going to be able to afford health insurance.”
Clinton couldn’t have said it any better.
Associated Press writer Libby Quaid in Washington contributed to this report.
Ron Fournier covered Arkansas politics in the 1980s and 1990s for The Associated Press before joining the national staff in 1992.