Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s surprising second-place finish in last week’s Iowa GOP straw poll may be the answer to Christian conservatives’ prayers or just the latest media sensation in an overly long 2008 presidential race.
But several experts agree on one thing: it could be bad news for Jewish Republicans.
“Any gains for Huckabee are jus t devastating for Jewish Republicans and Republicans in general,” said Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida political scientist who follows Jewish politics. “Huckabee is exactly the wrong face for the GOP to put forward.”
The former governor — a one-time Southern Baptist pastor who is working hard to energize a Christian conservative faction that has yet to coalesce behind a single GOP contender — “epitomizes the very forces that have prevented
Republican inroads among the Jews.”
But a spokesperson for the Republican Jewish Coalition scoffed at that analysis.
“It’s not possible or fair to draw conclusions about how candidates will do with the Jewish community,” said Suzanne Kurtz, the RJC press secretary. “Gov. Huckabee will continue to campaign; as he interacts with the Jewish community, he will be able to answer questions about his candidacy.”
The official winner of the straw vote was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who garnered 31 percent of the vote after a major push in the state. Two other frontrunners — Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — did not participate.
While Romney staged an impressive win, it was Huckabee’s second-place performance with 18 percent that generated the most talk in political circles.
Numerous commentators pointed out the obvious comparison to Bill Clinton — also a former Arkansas governor from the town of Hope, also a relative unknown nationally in the early stages of the campaign.
Huckabee edged out the better-known, better-funded Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who is also waging an active campaign to capture the party’s strong Christian right faction.
But University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said it is far from clear whether Huckabee can ride his Iowa bounce to the top tier of GOP contenders.
“The key is money — he needs lots of it, fast,” Sabato said. “I don’t see where he gets it.”
A surge of support from the religious right could help — but “that will send other Republicans running,” Sabato said. “How much would the Democrats like it if the GOP nominated a fundamentalist Baptist preacher?”
One group made it clear it would like that very much.
Only hours after the Iowa results were in, the National Jewish Democratic Council launched a barrage meant to remind Jewish voters of Huckabee’s past forays into controversy. Included in the salvo: a reminder that Huckabee said in 1998 that he “got into politics because I knew government didn’t have the real answers, that real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives … I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ.”