Huckabee gaffes tarnish credibility

January 6, 2008 2:46:06 PM PST
Republican Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses by campaigning as an honest conservative, yet he has made a series of blunders that raise questions about his credibility. Huckabee's image as a straight shooter helped him defeat Mitt Romney in the opening contest for the GOP presidential nomination. Not only did voters want someone who shares their values - and Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, fit the bill - they also wanted a candidate who says what he believes, according to a survey of caucus-goers.

His common-man message and his authenticity are appealing in New Hampshire, which holds a presidential primary on Tuesday, although he is facing better-known and better-funded rivals Romney and John McCain.

"He's not plastic," said GOP strategist Greg Mueller. "He speaks American, not Washingtonian. The way he communicates is coming off as a person who understands and can connect with middle America."

"It's kind of what Obama is doing, too, on the other side," Mueller added, referring to Democrat Barack Obama, the Illinois senator who defeated John Edwards and Hillary Clinton in Thursday's caucuses.

For all his directness, Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, sent a series of conflicting messages in the days before the caucuses:

_He decided not to air a commercial attacking Romney but played it for journalists, anyway.

_He said he supports the Hollywood writers' strike but crossed the picket line to appear on the Jay Leno's "Tonight" show.

_He campaigned at a casino in Burlington, Iowa, despite his opposition to gambling.

Even his senior aides have had trouble keeping their story straight. Asked about Romney saying he'd won the "silver" in Thursday's caucuses, campaign manager Chip Saltzman said he wouldn't go there.

"You know, one of the things that we try to do as a campaign is always worry about our campaign and not necessarily comment about what the other folks have done," Saltzman said at a news conference outside Huckabee's victory party. "And we're going to try to continue to do that."

Moments later, campaign chairman Ed Rollins leaned into the microphone and went there.

"I'm glad that Governor Romney is happy with his silver, but my experience in politics is there are no bronzes and silvers," Rollins said.

"You win, and you get to go on and govern. You lose, you go home. He doesn't, obviously, have to go home. There's more states to compete in. But I think to a certain extent, he'll have to rethink more of what he does than we're going to have to rethink what we do.

"Because he had the best consultants, the best media people, all the polling in the world, all the money in the world, and he just lost and lost fairly badly."

Rollins, a political brawler who managed President Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984, joined the Huckabee camp only three weeks ago and has contributed to some of its growing pains.

It was Rollins who persuaded Huckabee to go negative with attack ads against Romney; ultimately, Huckabee decided not to run the commercial. And it was Rollins who recommended playing it, anyway, at a news conference where the campaign had planned to unveil the attack.

In the end, the gambit seemed to have worked; many voters said they liked that Huckabee decided not to run attack ads.

Rollins is hardly the only reason for the campaign's problems. Huckabee's shoestring operation has struggled to keep up with his swift ascent in the polls, scrambling with tasks that other campaigns are accustomed to, like booking buses or a plane for the throng of journalists who cover him.

Huckabee himself has struggled to keep up. Last month, he was unaware of a report the White House had released saying Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, and he flubbed his response to the assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, expressing apologies when he meant to say sympathies. He also warned that Pakistan is second only to Latin America in the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, which is not true.

Clearly, Huckabee is still adjusting to the spotlight that accompanied his unexpected and improbable rise. But if he performs well in New Hampshire and continues to gain momentum, he will have to become more disciplined.

"You can get away with making some mistakes with voters, as long as they're not huge - sometimes when the establishment picks on you because of a minor mistake, it benefits you," Mueller said. "Mistakes are going to be made in every campaign. The key is to limit mistakes and maximize opportunity and let the candidate's message drive everything."