Hearting Huckabee

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I went to a Pew Forum lunch yesterday with twenty-odd journalists and Mike Huckabee, who had just flown in from the New Hampshire debate. (He was on a USAir flight with four other candidates, and he joked that if the plane had gone down, the headline would have been: Giuliani, McCain, Romney campaign in Iowa; other candidates die in plane crash.) Huckabee was, well, everything you'd been led to expect: Folksy, anecdotal, humorous and charming, albeit in a manner that probably plays better on the stump than it does with a pack of D.C. journalists. (I tried to tune out during the three questions about evolution.) In spite of their shared home town, he lacked Bill Clinton's amazing policy fluency, and when the questioners drilled down a bit below the platitudes - well, what should we do about health care? - he fumbled a bit, and circled back to his generalizations. Still, those generalizations were exactly the kind of things I wanted to hear, all about there being more to domestic policy than tax cuts, how disappointing it was that nobody wanted to talk about education or health care at the debates, how important it was for the GOP to address the kitchen-table concerns of working-class voters, and so forth.

But it's clearly the wrong year for him, even leaving aside the disadvantages - his lack of name recognition or a fundraising base; his distinctively Southern persona (I'm not sure America's quite ready for a Baptist minister as President) - that he'd have in any case. In a certain way, a friend pointed out to me afterward, he's running the way Bush did in 2000, talking about broadening the party's appeal on domestic issues and waxing eloquent (in his only extended riff on foreign policy) about the U.S. needing to cultivate humility in international affairs. This is language that I think the GOP needs to find its way back to eventually, but it's not the language that's going to win you the Republican primary in 2008. The rest of the country is looking, it seems, for a President who can end the war in Iraq and move on to addressing a litany of domestic concerns; the Republican base, though, is looking for a President who can win the war in Iraq, and that's not a contest that Mike Huckabee is equipped for.

Photo by Flickr user Holtocw used under a Creative Commons license.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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