Will the Real Mike Huckabee Please Stand Up?

By subtly shifting his rhetoric, Huckabee can make his hard-right audience hear what they are looking for without jeopardize the friendly image he has carefully constructed.
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Des Moines -- Mike Huckabee began a bold denunciation of gay marriage in Ames, Iowa, Wednesday night, but quickly checked himself with stuttering caveats:

"We have to also realize that the strength of our nation really does come down to our families, and that's why, without apology -- I'm, I'm not mad at anybody and I'm, I'm not against anybody -- but folks, we have an obligation to preserve the integrity of, of what family, what marriage means. Again, not to, not to try to put others down, but to lift that institution up."

The former Arkansas governor returned to Iowa this week as the new frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. He has been selling himself as a kinder-and-gentler conservative, one who's "just not angry about it." How different is the aw-shucks Huck who spoke in this Iowa college town than the culture warrior who wrote in 1998: "It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations -- from homosexuality and pedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia." This quote turned up by David Korn at Mother Jones is one of the many Ghosts of an Angry Huckabee Past that haunted him the week before Christmas.

One of Huckabee's main challenges during the final stretch to the Iowa caucuses is preserving his sunny image under intensifying scrutiny.

Huckabee's campaign added new text this week to a campaign webpage devoted to "Faith and Politics." His first principle, according the revised page, is that "The First Amendment requires that expressions of faith be neither prohibited nor preferred." The old first principle, "Faith is my life -- it defines me," has been moved into second place. This is likely chiefly a response to media uproar of his assertion that "what really matters is celebrating the birth of Christ" in a holiday ad (whoops, I mean Christmas ad) that began airing earlier this week. Huckabee was now a foot soldier resisting the "War on Christmas."

Huckabee spent the week performing this balancing act on the stump. After several appearances in Iowa, it became clear that he was fine-tuning his speech to make sure his audience heard what he wanted them to without giving ammunitions to reporters.

Twenty-four hours after his speech in Ames, home to Iowa State University, Huckabee headlined a fundraiser for the Iowa Christian Alliance in Cedar Rapids. Huckabee may claim not to be angry -- but the ICA doesn't make any such apology. They split with the Christian Coalition last year citing the national organization's support for an Alabama tax increase and its cooperation with MoveOn.org in support of "net neutrality." Before Huckabee took the podium, ICA President Steve Schaeffer called on the audience to join a campaign for a state marriage amendment campaign and reminded them that Christian activists helped save the state right-to-work law.

In Ames, Huckabee had started with a long discussion of his rise from his humble roots, burying social issues almost 30 minutes into his speech. He spoke about gay marriage for less than a minute. But in Cedar Rapids, Huckabee offered up a credo to the ICA right out of the gate. "[T]hose of us who were evangelicals joined in the Republican Party because there was no other place to go politically when we were pro-life, pro-family, and pro-marriage. Now most of us are people, too, who believe in lower taxes and less government. We believe in more local government and less federal government, and we're conservative across the board. And no matter what you hear, those are the things that I believe."

He dwelled on the marriage issue before the ICA for twice as long as he had in Ames, invoking new religious rhetoric. Perhaps mindful that reporters might be waiting for the Huckabee of the '90s to come out of hiding, he did offer one halting protest to ward off allegations of homophobia before serving up red meat.

"[W]hen it comes to the point of marriage -- I'm not against people, I'm, I'm not mad at anybody about, uh, trying to dictate how other people live, but I, I certainly do feel that we've got a responsibility to act when people want to redefine the very essence of what marriage means. It's only meant one thing in human history, and that's one man and one woman in a monogamous relationship for life.... Once we change the definition of that structure, and we start saying...it can be any group of people who choose to be together and label themselves a family...you've taken the very structure away that has given us stability.... What happens when we loose that skeletal system of our entire fabric of being? And I remind people that before God created the church or even a civil government, first and foremost he created and established marriage and the family. It is the foundation, the foremost, the single most important institution that we have of all. That's why it's not an issue that we can say, it's a political issue and it doesn't matter. It does matter, and it's got to keep mattering to every single one of us and the day that it doesn't matter is the day that we might as well start looking towards the end of our civilization."

Voices in the crowd offered up an "Amen."

In Ames, his abortion rhetoric was cleverly anchored in the language of the Declaration of Independence, without reference to God:

To give [our kids] a better world, we have to make sure that we do the one thing that perhaps gives us the greatest level of civility of all. And that's respect each other. Remember when I said that all of us are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights? And the first one was life. For me, the sanctity of human life is not a political issue. It's a fundamental definition of who we are as a culture and a society. The reason that this country works as it does is because we do treat each other with a sense of intrinsic worth and value that is not changed by IQ, by wealth, by what house you live in, by where you went to school, by who your father or grandfather was, or what your last name is, or what ethnicity you have, or what race, or what religion -- none of that matters. All of us are equal. All of us have the same intrinsic worth. Which means that unborn child in the mother's womb is just as valuable as is the 18-year-old, as is the 38-year-old, as is the 88-year-old. [Applause] And the day that we ever start valuing some more than others for whatever reason, we really do start losing who we are.

He simply reverses the order before the ICA, and stresses that Thomas Jefferson's "creator" is the Christian God:

When people think about the issue of sanctity of life, sometime they want to make it a political issue. To many of us, it is not a political issue. It is an issue that is about really the essence of our civilization. Soul of our civilization. Quite frankly, if you think about it, the pro-life position is the one that was espoused by our founding fathers when they said that all of us our created equal, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. The first one they listed was life. And the whole part of that principle is built on "all men are created equal." That means nobody has a greater level of intrinsic worth or value than any other person. Being unborn doesn't make you less valuable. Having different IQ, having a different ethnicity, having a different last name or ancestry, none of those things cause one to be elevated above another in their basic worth before God. And the reason that for some of the pro-life issue is non-negotiable and it's not a political issue, but it's at its very heart and soul a moral issue that determines the future of this country is because if we miss it on that, we miss it all the way back to the concept of people being created equal.

The subtle reshuffling has a powerful rhetorical effect. In Ames, his pro-life position has no need for justification in the Bible -- the constitution is reason enough. Speaking to the ICA, however, he implied that the faith and principles he shared with his religious right audience were written into the constitution by the Founding Fathers.

Many have wanted to write Huckabee off as a small-town rube. But decades as a preacher and a politician have turned him into a masterful speaker, one of the best on the stump. He has careful control over his words. By subtly shifting his rhetoric, he can make his hard-right audience hear what they are looking for without jeopardize the friendly image he has carefully constructed.

Which one is the "real" Huckabee? We may never know, unless he gets elected president. The weakest speech I saw him give during his time in Iowa, however, was the one I found most revealing. A few hours before addressing the ICA, a worn-out Huckabee spoke to a small crowd in a Manchester community center on the county fair grounds. This was his third stop of the day, and the 5th in less than 24 hours. As if seeking easy ground on which to warm up, he opened with social issues, coming close to belittling those on the other side of the issue.

"Seems like there's a debate going on about whether marriage still means what it's always meant -- one man, one woman, lifetime relationship... It seems like it's worked pretty well through most of human history, I hate to start changing the rules now," he said, almost jokingly. "The fact is, marriage has enough trouble staying together for most people -- the divorce rate now is at the 50 percent mark -- I hardly see why we'd start a new version of it when we need to be working on the old version of it to try to make it a little better."

Huckabee's rival from Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, has gone on the attack as his lead over the Arkansan has evaporated. Huckabee uses this to emphasize his upbeat image, as he told those in Manchester, "There's a real need in this nation for us to change the tone." He might have been describing his transformation from cultural-warrior to conservative populist. The question is, is he still singing the same tune?

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