National Commentary

David Brooks: From The Back Of The Pack

RINDGE, N.H. — The first thing you notice about Mike Huckabee is that he has a Mayberry name and a Jim Nabors face. But it's quickly clear that Huckabee is as good a campaigner as anybody running for president this year.


And before too long it becomes easy to come up with reasons why he might have a realistic shot at winning the Republican nomination:

First, Republican voters here and in Iowa are restless. That means that there will be sharp movements during the last 30 days toward whoever seems fresh and hot.

Second, each of the top-tier candidates makes certain parts of the party uncomfortable. Huckabee is the one candidate acceptable to all factions.

Third, Huckabee is the most normal person running for president (a trait that might come in handy in a race against Hillary Clinton). He is funny and engaging — almost impossible not to like. He has no history of flip-flopping in order to be electable. He doesn't seem to be visibly calculating every gesture. Far from being narcissistic, he is, if anything, too neighborly to seem presidential.

Fourth, he is part of the new generation of evangelical leaders. Huckabee was a Baptist minister. But unlike the first generation of politically engaged Christian conservatives, Huckabee is not at war with mainstream America. As a teenager, he loved Jimi Hendrix, and he's now the bass player in a rock band that has opened for Willie Nelson and Grand Funk Railroad.

Fifth, though you wouldn't know it from the past few years, the white working class is the backbone of the GOP. Huckabee is most in tune with these voters.

He was the first male in his family's history to graduate from high school. He paid his way through college by working 40 hours a week and getting a degree in 2 1/2 years. He tells audiences that the only soap his family could afford was the rough Lava soap, and that he was in college before he realized showering didn't have to hurt.

"There are people paying $150 for an exfoliation," he jokes. "I could just hand them a bar of Lava soap."

His policies reflect that background. At the recent Republican economic debate, he was the candidate who most vociferously argued that the current economy is not working for the middle class. As the others spoke, he thought to himself: "You guys don't get out much. You should meet somebody who's not handing you a $2,300 check."

He condemns "immoral" CEO salaries, and on global trade he sounds like a Democrat: "There's no free trade without fair trade." (Polls suggest most Republican voters are, sadly, with him on this).

Sixth, he's a former governor. He talks about issues in a down-to-earth way that other candidates can't match. For example, he's got a riff on childhood obesity that rivets the attention of his audiences. He asks them to compare their own third-grade class photos with the photos of third-graders today. Then he goes down the list of the diseases that afflict preteens who get Type 2 diabetes.

"The greatest challenge in health care is not universal coverage," he argues while introducing his health care plan. "It's universal health. A healthy country would be less expensive to cover."

Seventh, he's a collaborative conservative. Republicans have tended to nominate heroic candidates in the Reagan mold. Huckabee is more of an interactive leader. His Legislature in Arkansas was 90 percent Democratic, but he got enough done to be named among the nation's top five governors by Time.

He endorses programs that are ideologically incorrect for conservatives, like his passion for arts education. He can't understand how the argument over the size of the S-chip funding increase became an all-or-nothing holy war.

He also criticizes the Bush administration for its arrogance. "There was a time when people looked up to the U.S. Now they resent us, not because we're a superpower but because we act like one."

Huckabee has some significant flaws as a candidate. His foreign policy thinking is thin. Some of his policy ideas seem to come off the top of his head (he vows, absurdly, to make the U.S. energy independent within eight years).

But Huckabee is something that the party needs. He is a solid conservative who is both temperamentally and substantively different from the conservatives who have led the country over the past few years.

He's rising in the polls, especially in Iowa. His popularity with the press corps suggests he could catch a free media wave that would put him in the top tier. He deserves to be there.