Isn't the whole point of a presidential race to leave you liking one candidate more and others less? This political season, however, it's not working out that way for me. I like one Republican candidate a bit more than the others—former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—but my regard for almost all the other major GOP candidates has gone up over the last year.
Rudy Giuliani? Yes, his social liberalism is hard to swallow, but he's a born leader who's rock solid on judges, taxes and the war on terror. John McCain? Yes, he's made a career of poking sticks in GOP eyes (campaign finance reform) and may be temperamentally unsuited to be president (anger issues), but he's been right on the Iraq war from the start and his resolve on Iraq and his own campaign are inspiring. Fred Thompson? Yes, it would be swell if he'd run—oh, he is? Sorry, but he's shown aw-shucks dash in the debates and put out meaty position papers. I could get used to all three come the general election.
Are my high spirits a function of this being an intra-party Republican affair? No, I've even had moments when I've found something to admire in Hillary Clinton. Do they stem from the fact that Campaign 2008 falls smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season this year? No, again.
How can I be so sure? Mike Huckabee.
The former Arkansas governor is the one major Republican candidate who's more offensive with each campaign day. Peace and joy and Christmas cheer? Bah, humbug. The Baptist minister from Hope, Ark., has managed to politicize Christmas. His campaign's latest TV ad features a red-sweatered Huck saying that at this time of year "what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ." Some viewers see a cross in the background—Huckabee says it's a bookshelf, and it looks that way to me—but it's easy to understand their suspicions. There are few coincidences in campaign ads, and Huckabee has made a blatant and distasteful bid to harness the votes of evangelical Christians.
I should cotton to Huckabee. He's a real charmer, a pro-life traditionalist with a winning way and a sense of humor. His Christian faith informs his domestic policies, putting compassion and decency—a concern for the littlest guy—into his conservatism.
But there it ends. Some of Huckabee's foreign-policy and national-security pronouncements are fit only for the world of Sunday school. Close down Guantanamo, prohibit waterboarding, talk to our wildest enemies, end the administration's arrogant "bunker mentality"—Republicans can get this kind of stuff at Democratic debates or on editorial pages. They don't need it from their candidate. One Kumbaya party is enough in the middle of a war.
In addition, Huckabee's crime-and-punishment record as governor makes Michael Dukakis look like Dirty Harry. And his shifty explanations of rapist Wayne Dumond's early release from prison—and Dumond's later rape and murder of a 39-year-old woman—have the smack of the original man from Hope: Bill Clinton.
Huckabee is the most gifted politician of either party in the 2008 race. If you doubt it, check out the way he answers tough questions—or doesn't answer them. Behold an artist at work. The man has obviously sat at the feet of the Arkansas master.
Most disturbing, however, has been Huckabee's exploitation of religion. Surely, a former pastor and governor should appreciate how volatile the mix of religion and politics is in a pluralistic land. Yet running against a Mormon and trying to appeal to evangelicals, his ads flash "Christian leader" on the screen and Huck himself says, "Faith doesn't just influence me, it really defines me."
If that weren't subtle enough, there was his comment to a New York Times reporter. After assuring the reporter he didn't think Romney's Mormon faith was a cult, Huckabee asked, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
You stay classy now, governor.
Huckabee later apologized and said his words were taken out of context. Fine, though it's worth noting that this allowed him to look good apologizing while simultaneously playing the ugly Mormon card.
I'm tempted to say Huckabee's latest TV ad was the last straw, but then the Huckster might claim he picked the straw up at a Bethlehem manger.