Huckabee's Choice: Populist or Fiscal Conservative?


Every political underdog who breaks through faces a choice: keep doing what worked for a long shot, or shift tactics in reaching for a victory that suddenly appears possible?

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, faces that choice right now. His success among conservative Christians has made him the leader in Iowa -- and perhaps even a threat for the nomination itself.

For months, when there was little staff and less money, Huckabee got by on wits and charm. But aside from clever one-liners, one of the things that helped him stand out in Republican debates was the populist tinge to his discussion of economics.

In one memorable riff at the Reagan Library early this year, Huckabee called it “criminal” for corporate CEOs to take fat bonuses while shipping the jobs of ordinary workers overseas, adding “If Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008.”

In a Christmas Eve interview on CNBC, I asked Huckabee what he intended to do about it. His answer: nothing soon in the way of new laws or regulations. He said use the bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on the practices and seek increased responsibility from corporate boards of directors.

That’s a perfectly defensible answer for a free market conservative; indeed it’s President Bush’s current policy. But it may be less than listeners expect from a would-be populist candidate vowing to halt a “criminal” practice.

Does that reflect new reticence now that Huckabee can look ahead to New Hampshire, where economic conservatives play a far greater role than in Iowa? Or was Huckabee’s populism more rhetorical than substantive all along – part of his attempt to make the media and rank and file Republicans notice him?

In the same interview, Huckabee also told me he considers himself a supply-sider on tax policy. That might surprise observers of the Republican campaign thus far.

If Huckabee wins the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, he’ll face much greater scrutiny of his policy views – on the economy and everything else. How he chooses to respond will define him as a candidate in boom times as well as lean times.

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