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Is Huckabee the New Jimmy Carter?

By Steven Stark

For the past 25 years or so, Republicans have made Jimmy Carter and his presidency one of their favorite punching bags -- the modern equivalent of what the Democrats did to Herbert Hoover two generations ago. "Look what happens when you nominate someone without much experience, who comes out of nowhere," they've said. Or, "He was just a little too odd or unconventional to be an effective president."

Now, though, the Republicans may want to keep their opinions of Carter (for whom I worked in the 1976 presidential campaign) to themselves. That's because if they nominate Mike Huckabee -- who this past week was unexpectedly leading the field in at least one national GOP poll and in Iowa -- they're going to be lining up behind someone who looks awfully similar to their bête noir. If nothing else, Carter's experience as a candidate in 1976 may provide the Republicans a convenient handbook on what's likely to happen to Huckabee as the campaign progresses.

It's true that Huckabee and Carter share few common views, but they're of a similar type. Both were little-known Southern governors with names that, at least to a national electorate, seemed funny ("Jimmy" seems more appropriate for a shortstop than a president). And both were the longest of long shots as their campaigns began, only to see themselves gain national attention in Iowa. They share an affable, low-key style of campaigning, often focusing on commonsense, homespun solutions that also appeal to partisans on the other side of the aisle. (When orating about foreign policy, Carter would often stress that ambassadors should speak the language of the country to which they were posted, which always drew applause. Huckabee's riffs on education can include a plea for the importance of the arts, which develop both sides of the mind.) It's not a coincidence that each forged his rhetorical style in church -- Carter was a Sunday Bible-school teacher in Plains, Georgia; Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister.

Each also carefully cultivated a pop-culture connection. A key part of the Carter effort in 1976 was the fundraising concerts given on his behalf by Southern rockers such as the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker bands. Huckabee, for his part, has already enlisted tough guy Chuck Norris and pro wrestler Ric Flair to aid his campaign, and he himself plays bass in a rock band.

What made the emergence of both Carter and Huckabee possible was that they adeptly read a shift in the public mood. After Vietnam and Watergate, Carter saw that the country might opt for a complete outsider, whose calling card was his utter lack of connection to anything that had been going on in Washington. Huckabee, too, is benefiting from a similar fed-up public mood, particularly in a party that still has to figure out how to separate itself gracefully from an unpopular president.

In fact, in their quests, both had the hidden good fortune to be as unknown as they were when the campaign started. The bad news about being obscure early in the race is that you don't get media coverage. But the good news is that this allows you to listen to voters and shift your approach and style accordingly before the cameras start rolling. Like Carter, at least in the early days, Huckabee has near-perfect pitch.

Moving target

Carter's campaign experience 32 years ago may also provide Huckabee a template for what lies ahead. For the first few months after he rose to prominence in 1976, the new face could do no wrong, racking up primary wins everywhere. But as the primary campaign progressed, the new face became the old face, and voters began to turn to even newer figures, such as Jerry Brown. In the Internet age, that process will be accelerated even further, meaning Huckabee's peaks and troughs could be separated by a matter of days, and even hours, rather than weeks or months.

Once nominated, of course, the same uneven progression occurred again. Carter left his 1976 convention with a lead in some polls greater than 30 points. By Election Day, it was down to one.

What made the Carter campaign particularly tortuous was that, by and large, the establishment -- one that included his own party, by the way -- couldn't stand him. (Outsiders, after all, aren't its thing.) But being anti-establishment also strengthened Carter's core constituency of outsiders -- as it will likely strengthen Huckabee's as the going gets rough and as he surely commits a series of so-called gaffes, which the press and his opponents will bring up endlessly in an attempt to bring him down.

Could the Carter phenomenon ever happen again? Two months ago, the answer would have been "No" -- 1976 was unique. Today, Huckabee is still a long shot, but such a negative judgment looks a tad premature.

Boston Phoenix


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