As Mike Huckabee rises in the polls, an inevitable process of vetting him for conservative credentials is under way in which people who know nothing of Arkansas or of the circumstances of his governorship weigh in knowingly about his record.
As his political consultant in the early '90s and as one who has been following Arkansas politics for 30 years, let me clue you in: Mike Huckabee is a fiscal conservative.
A recent column by Bob Novak excoriated Huckabee for a "47 percent increase in state tax burden." But during Huckabee's years in office, total state tax burden — all 50 states combined — rose by twice as much: 98 percent, increasing from $743 billion in 1993 to $1.47 trillion in 2005.
In Arkansas, the income tax when he took office was 1 percent for the poorest taxpayers and 7 percent for the richest, exactly where it stood when he left the statehouse 11 years later. But, in the interim, he doubled the standard deduction and the child care credit, repealed capital gains taxes for home sales, lowered the capital gains rate, expanded the homestead exemption, and set up tax-free savings accounts for medical care and college tuition.
Most impressively, when he had to pass an income tax surcharge amid the drop in revenues after Sept. 11, 2001, he repealed it three years later when he didn't need it any longer.
He raised the sales tax one cent in 11 years and did that only after the courts ordered him to do so. (He also got voter approval for a one-eighth cent hike for parks and recreation.)
He wants to repeal the income tax, abolish the IRS, and institute a "fair tax" based on consumption, and he opposes any tax increase for Social Security.
And he can win in Iowa.
When voters who have decided not to back Rudy Giuliani because of his social positions consider the contest between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, they will have no difficulty choosing between a real social conservative and an ersatz one.
Romney, who began as a pro-lifer and switched in order to win in Massachusetts, and then flipped back again, cannot compete with a lifelong pro-lifer, Huckabee.
But Huckabee's strength is not just his orthodoxy on gay marriage, abortion, gun control and the usual litany. It is his opening of the religious right to a host of new issues.
He speaks firmly for the right to life, but then notes that our responsibility for children does not end with childbirth. His answer to the rise of medical costs is novel and exciting. "Eighty percent of all medical spending," he says, "is for chronic diseases."
So he urges an all-out attack on teen smoking and overeating and a push for exercise not as the policies of a big-government liberal but as the requisites of a fiscal conservative anxious to save tax money.
So what happens if Huckabee wins in Iowa?
With New Hampshire only five days later, his momentum will be formidable. The key may boil down to how Hillary does in Iowa. Hillary? Yes.
If she loses in Iowa, most of the independents in New Hampshire will flock to the Democratic primary to vote for her or against her. That will move the Republican electorate to the right in New Hampshire — bad news for Rudy, good news for Huckabee. But if she wins in Iowa, there will be no point in voting in the Democratic primary and a goodly number will enter the GOP contest, giving Rudy a big boost.
And afterward? If Romney wins Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, sweeping the early primaries, Giuliani will have a very tough task to bring him down in Florida or on Super Tuesday. It can be done, but it's tough. But if Romney loses in Iowa (likely to Huckabee) then Rudy can survive the loss of Iowa and even New Hampshire without surrendering irresistible momentum to Romney.
In any event, neither Hillary nor Giuliani will be knocked out by defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire. Their 50-state organizations, their national base and their massive war chests will permit them to fight it out all over the United States. Even if they lose the first two contests, they will remain in the race and could well come back to win.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann