Monday, May 07, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Huck tries to impress

The first big cattle show of the 2008 season for Republicans, which was promoted as a debate but wasn’t, left the pastoral scene of presidential politics unchanged as far as we could tell. For our favorite son, Mike Huckabee, that is good news and bad news.

It is good news that he did not stumble and he proved to be as facile on the big stage at the Reagan Presidential Library as he was in a south Arkansas pulpit or on a Don Imus radio show. He exhibited flashes of wit and delivered the by-now well-rehearsed lines on the familiar issues as well as any of the other nine contenders, and better than John McCain.

But the bad news is that Mike Huckabee did not break out of the also-runners, and time is running short. He seemed after 90 minutes to have been almost an afterthought. Everyone was still talking about the big three — McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani — and you had the vague feeling that Huckabee got less face time than any of the candidates with the possible exception of the truest conservative of them all, Congressman Ron Paul. Could that be true or was our former governor just that bland?

It is hard to declare anyone a winner when 10 middle-aged to aging white men all clad in cool dark gray strive for 90 minutes to exceed each other in encomiums to conservatism.

Romney, the square-jawed former governor from the country’s liberal commonwealth, Massachusetts, looked and sounded the most presidential, if you pay little attention to content. He tried to explain the dramatic reversal of principles that now characterize his persona as honest changes of conviction rather than of convenience.

Everyone now, including the social liberal Giuliani, is recasting himself as both a classical conservative and a religious fundamentalist. Giuliani, the frontrunner, struggles peculiarly in these venues, and his fortunes could not have been helped Thursday by his painful efforts to explain himself on abortion, or his multiple marriages.

Senator McCain, who seemed unbeatable a year ago, looked panicky at the beginning and terribly rehearsed throughout. After a year of being a yes man to the president whom no one in the room wanted to embrace, McCain is reverting now to the straight-talk express to revive his sagging fortunes. He was the most critical of the president, but it seemed somehow hollow.

We said Huckabee did not stumble. He had ready and familiar answers to all the predictable questions. On the one that was new — would he support a constitutional amendment to allow people born outside the United States, like the governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sat on the front row, to serve as president of the United States? — Huckabee got a big laugh when he said he’d be happy to support the amendment, after finishing his own two terms as president.

Chris Matthews, the frenetic loudmouth TV commentator who emceed the show, trapped Huckabee on a little bit of a straddle.

Asked about his remarks on an earlier TV show where he seemed to derogate Romney for his insinuation that the Mormon church would not influence his policies, Huckabee said he was only saying that his own faith would guide his policies and that he never intended to criticize Romney.

Matthews did not buy it, but Huckabee can claim that he did not mention Romney in the sentence where he condemned those who said their religious faith would not dictate their policies.

The governor was not called to account for his one outrageous claim, a boast that he has repeated at almost every political event.

All the candidates got a few seconds to proclaim their hostility to taxes. Huckabee said that he had a consistent record of tax cutting and that he had slashed taxes in Arkansas “94 times.” His record is this: He signed one big tax cut, a 1997 income tax revision drafted and passed by the other party. He supported two other smaller tax cuts that became law.

He fought elimination of the sales tax on groceries. He raised taxes far more than he cut them. He raised them so much that treasury surpluses set records his last two years in office.

If Huckabee can fashion himself into a major candidate — the Iowa straw poll in August is his goal — his dissimulation as a world-class tax cutter will not be permitted to pass.

No one cares to set the record straight now, but you can be sure that his rivals will pin him if he becomes a threat.
Huckabee’s best bet is to be honest about his values and his record.

In a state with the poorest education and weakest public services in the country, he worked practically with Democrats to get things done, even when his own party was not much help and even when they required more taxes.

If he cannot win on that record and on straight talk, he cannot win on anything. Too bad the first big debate did not help him see the light.