Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee went from Mr. Nice to Mr. Nasty when rival Fred Thompson started calling him what he considered a bad name — a liberal.
The Southerners are fighting on warmer, more familiar turf in South Carolina, which holds a Republican primary four days after Michigan votes on Tuesday. Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, wants to build on his victory in the Iowa caucuses, while Thompson, once a Tennessee senator, needs a victory to keep his campaign afloat.
Huckabee said Friday that the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-politician had little to show for his time in the Senate.
“Eight years is a pretty long time to get a check from the federal government and not be able to say” he passed a major bill, Huckabee sniped.
In fairness, it was Thompson who started the spat, calling Huckabee a liberal on the economy and foreign affairs in Thursday’s GOP debate in South Carolina. He ticked off Huckabee’s alleged sins against that most hallowed of Republican institutions, the church of Ronald Reagan.
“On the one hand, you have the Reagan revolution. You have the Reagan coalition of limited government and strong national security,” Thompson said. “On the other hand, you have the direction that Governor Huckabee would take us in.”
Among Huckabee’s transgressions: He called President Bush’s foreign policy “arrogant,” he supported taxpayer-funded scholarships for children of illegal immigrants and he signed a smoking ban into law.
“So much for federalism,” sniffed Thompson, who enjoys cigars. “So much for states’ rights.”
Thompson clearly hit where it hurt, and Huckabee struck back several times while campaigning Friday in Michigan.
“It was real interesting hearing Fred Thompson talk about Ronald Reagan last night,” Huckabee said. “Because Fred Thompson supported Gerald Ford in 1976 and not Ronald Reagan. He supported fellow Tennessean Howard Baker in 1980 and not Ronald Reagan. I appreciate his recent conversion, but some of us were for Ronald Reagan back in the early days; our legacy goes back a little further.”
Then he got more personal, saying Thompson had little to show for his time as senator from Tennessee. Thompson didn’t pass measures on illegal immigration or other issues he is campaigning on, Huckabee said.
Both men are wooing the same Christian conservative voters as they try to fend off Arizona Sen. John McCain, who won Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary with moderate Republican and independent support. Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist preacher, has rallied pastors behind him, while Thompson has collected a series of endorsements from anti-abortion groups.
Lashing out is new for Huckabee, who defeated his chief rival in Iowa, Republican Mitt Romney, in large measure by staying positive while Romney assailed him with television commercials.
In fact, Huckabee made an elaborate gesture to show he was Mr. Nice, holding a news conference to announce he had decided not to respond with an attack ad of his own. He played the ad for journalists anyway, but his decision was interpreted by many Iowa voters as staying above the fray.
Even then, Huckabee said he might go negative in South Carolina or another state.
“Each election we’ll look at on its own terms,” he told reporters traveling with him in Iowa. “I sensed here in Iowa, people were really, really exhausted with the kind of nasty stuff that they’d been seeing and inundated with.”
Not that he’s being nasty, of course. After suggesting that Thompson needed to lighten up — he told MSNBC on Friday that Thompson needed to drink a bit of the digestive aid Metamucil — Huckabee later assured reporters that he was only trying to bring some humor to the stump.
In contrast to Huckabee, Thompson’s demeanor has been more grumpy old man than Mr. Nice. He is 65, while Huckabee is 52.
Some people “don’t like to have their records talked about,” Thompson said Friday in Mount Pleasant, S.C. For anyone who didn’t get the reference, Thompson helpfully added, “one of the guys who shall remain named Governor Huckabee.”
Spoiling for a fight, Thompson even questioned whether Huckabee had a more hardscrabble upbringing. Huckabee’s dad worked two jobs as a firefighter and mechanic, and Huckabee was the family’s first male high school graduate. Thompson’s dad was a used-car salesman with an eighth-grade education.
“I can out-poor any of them,” Thompson said. “I grew up under more modest circumstances than anybody on that stage.”
Libby Quaid covers the presidential election for The Associated Press. AP writer Jim Davenport in Mount Pleasant, S.C., contributed to this report.