LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas -- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's surge in Iowa has shaken up the race for the Republican presidential nomination, but it remains to be seen if the folksy Baptist preacher can extend his appeal beyond his populist roots.
The humorous and affable Huckabee largely went unchallenged by rivals while seen as an unthreatening dark horse, but he has faced criticism and closer scrutiny since a jump in the polls put him within reach of Iowa front-runner Mitt Romney.
The free-market Club for Growth has blasted Huckabee's tax hikes as Arkansas governor, conservative columnist Robert Novak has labeled him a "false conservative" and his rivals have challenged him on issues like immigration.
Even voters in his home state seem to be ambivalent.
While he had approval ratings of around 55 percent his last years in office, an Arkansas poll two years ago found voters opposed him seeking the presidency 44 percent to 43 percent.
Only 8 percent of Arkansans last month said they would vote for him as president, equal to Republican rival Rudy Giuliani, but well behind Democratic leader Hillary Clinton, Arkansas' former first lady, at 35 percent, a new Arkansas poll found.
"He's good with a joke, and we need some humor in politics," said Jan Hall, 33, a Little Rock receptionist. "But I don't know if he has the experience we need. I'm scared of what the economy's going to do, and this war ... what can he do about those things?"
Little-known outside his state and evangelical circles just a few months ago, Huckabee grabbed national attention with his surprise second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll in August, an early test of strength in the state that kicks off the nomination process for the November 2008 presidential race.
A recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed his strength jumping to 24 percent in Iowa, putting him in striking distance of former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, who garnered 28 percent. The transition to contender has brought closer scrutiny of his record as Arkansas governor from 1996 to 2007.
At home, Huckabee is often remembered as a tax raiser and spender. Some people say the spending was needed.
A POLITICAL TARGET
"I don't get a kick out of paying taxes, but who does? I guess when he raised taxes here he had to. The roads were falling apart and now you don't wreck your truck just driving," said Corliss Bennett, a Little Rock deliveryman.
But that record on spending, tax hikes and regulation is what has drawn the ire of many fiscal conservatives.
"Huckabee is proud of his tax hikes, his spending increases and his regulatory expansions as governor, and he has not indicated that he would govern any differently as president," the Club for Growth said.
Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College, said Huckabee's conservative populism was an Arkansas tradition, but was out of step with national Republican views.
"He's someone who sees a role for government in taking care of the little guy -- meaning those who can't take care of themselves," Barth said.
Some of his policies went down well in the U.S. heartland.
Outdoor Life magazine, which claims a readership of 5.5 million, last week named Huckabee "one of the 25 most influential people in hunting and fishing" because of a conservation amendment he passed as governor that pumped about $26 million into the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
His religious background and his stance opposing gay rights and abortion have endeared him to much of the Religious Right, the Republican Party's conservative Christian base, which has yet to unite behind a single candidate.
There have been signs for some time that he was making headway among conservative Christians, tying Romney for first place in an October straw poll of Religious Right activists and generally receiving a thumbs-up from evangelical leaders.
His anti-abortion stance has hardened in the heat of the campaign. He once favored letting the states enact their own abortion laws, which would allow some to restrict it, but more recently he has said it is a moral issue that should not have 50 interpretations.
Such shifts are bound to be on the radar screens of his opponents at Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, where his new status in the race has made him a target.
"Huckabee is the one candidate who has pulled himself up to the point where he will be a target of attack by the frontrunners," said David Lester Epstein, a political scientist at Columbia University.
"He hasn't really been campaigning up until now because he had so little money," he added. "But if he does well in Iowa it will mean more money and momentum."
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