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Mike Huckabee: a conservative with a social gospel

The former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister speaks the language of Christian Evangelicals on social issues, but his concern for the poor means he's willing to spend more than fiscal conservatives would like.

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Huckabee launched his career in politics with a race against three-term US Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) in 1992. To his surprise, he lost. "He felt that God wanted him to run for the Senate. I, too, felt that that was what he was supposed to do," says his wife, Janet, in an interview. "We didn't have a Plan B" when he lost, she adds. "But you can't second guess something when you think you've done the right thing. You have to make the decision and have peace about it. That's where your faith comes in."

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But after then-Governor Clinton won the White House, Huckabee had another shot at politics. He won a special election to replace Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, and after then-Governor Tucker was convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud in 1996, Huckabee moved into the governor's mansion. He was elected to a four-year term in 1998, and reelected in 2002.

One of his first moves as governor was to review state laws, rules, and practices with an eye to their impact on families. He signed legislation to double the child-care tax credit, protect the rights of parents to home-school their children, eliminate the marriage penalty in the tax code, outlaw same-sex marriage, and require parental consent for abortion. He also launched a program to provide health insurance to more than 70,000 children, ARKids First.

He says the answer to America's healthcare crisis is preventing chronic disease, rather than finding a way to pay for it. He often cites his own example. In grade school, he was asked to bring a symbol of his faith to a show-and-tell on religion. One student brought a crucifix, another brought a menorah. "I brought a casserole in a covered dish," he says.

Since 2000, he's lost more than 100 pounds and has started running marathons. "Of my many motivations to move toward a concept of forever fit, the primary one is faith," he writes in his 2005 book "Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork."

Faith also played a role in Huckabee's response to hurricane Katrina. As 70,000 evacuees were gathering on planes and buses, Huckabee summoned faith leaders to the governor's mansion. Within 24 hours, volunteers in church camps across the state were prepared to accept busloads of displaced people. Huckabee told state officials and volunteers to treat people the way they would want to be treated if they showed up on someone else's doorstep with just the clothes on their back.

"His real leadership came in the way he communicated it to everybody," says Chris Pyle, Huckabee's speechwriter and former director of family policy. "He said: We are going to meet their needs and figure how to pay for it later."

But conservative critics say that as governor, Huckabee was too ready to spend for social issues and didn't focus enough on curbing spending and taxes.

"He's got a preacher's mentality. He sees all these needs and he thinks it's the role of the federal government to meet them," says former GOP state Rep. Randy Minton.

In fact, Huckabee says some of his tax increases were mandated by the courts to properly fund Arkansas schools. On the campaign trail, he proposes "scrapping the 177,000-page federal tax code," including the IRS, in favor of a national sales tax. To make the tax more progressive, people below the poverty level would receive monthly checks.

He's also come under fire for too readily commuting the sentences of felons and proposing in-tuition and scholarships for illegal immigrants.

"I think in his heart he really believes that he's for the underdog. Like a lot of people in the state, he grew up in rather meager means," says former GOP state Sen. Peggy Jeffries. "But if you believe in the rule of law, then illegal means illegal."

The key to leadership, Huckabee says, isn't to govern on a left-to-right ideological scale. "Vertical leadership is when you are leading people on the basis of things that will directly impact their lives," he says. Put in the terms of his faith: It's the Golden Rule in action.

"I do not spell G.O.D. ... G.O.P. Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important than anybody's political party," Huckabee said to values voters last month.