Does Arkansas Have a Heart for Huckabee?

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has charmed voters around the country in a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. But what's the verdict back home on his 10 years as the state's chief executive?

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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In terms of polls, money and organization, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is clearly in the second tier of the Republicans running for president. His folksy performances in debate have generated some buzz around the country. But what do people think about a Huckabee candidacy back home in Arkansas.

Jacqueline Froelich of member station KUAF went to find out.

JACQUELINE FROELICH: It's county fair season in the Ozarks. The clatter of roller coasters and scent pink cotton candies fill the summer evening air.

(Soundbite of sheep bleating)

FROELICH: And so do the cries of sheep trucked in by farm kids for show. Matt Burner(ph) and his daughter Elizabeth(ph) bathed Josh(ph) the Ram in preparation for judging. As he rinses away suds, Burner takes some time out for politics and says why he believes Mike Huckabee will win the Republican presidential nomination.

Mr. MATT BURNER (Farmer): He says he's conservative. He's the one true conservative in the whole field.

FROELICH: Like Burner, Stew Rinen(ph) is also a Christian conservative, but unlike Burner, he doesn't see Huckabee as someone who stands up for conservative principles.

Mr. STEW RINEN: I think he's not representing the Christian movement as much as he could be.

FROELICH: That's because Huckabee, a southern Baptist minister, is not using the campaign as a national pulpit, preaching against evolution, abortion and gay rights. Instead, this self-described paradoxical Republican seeks to distance himself from the failures of a party, which he says has lost credibility due to scandal, a floundering economy, and a protected war. And there doesn't seem to be much of a consensus among liberal Arkansans either.

Carol Maine(ph) shopping at an organic farmers market is hardly a fan of Huckabee's ideology, but she is impressed by the most well known thing about him - his weight loss.

Ms. CAROL MAINE: I do appreciate what he did for raising people's awareness about diet and health issues.

FROELICH: No one in my random survey of voters could list Huckabees' accomplishments as a 10-year governor - education reform, highway improvement, health care uninsured children, plus an $800 million budget surplus. But they all knew he dropped 110 pounds.

Dr. JANINE PARRY (Political Scientist, University of Arkansas): To many Americans, it's compelling, and I don't think we should underestimate that.

FROELICH: University of Arkansas political scientist and pollster Janine Parry says Huckabee's approval ratings were impressive for a Republican in a Democratic state because of his major policy successes like health insurance for poor kids. That Huckabee plays well with the Democrats back home may help him nationally, says long-time Arkansas political columnist John Brummett.

Mr. JOHN BRUMMETT (Political Columnist, Arkansas News Bureau): I think that that can work to his benefit and if he can manage to portray what I think he wants to portray, which is that he is a social conservative and evangelical conservative, but who also has a compassionate centrist side who has a record of making government work.

FROELICH: And the ability to work a crowd, Brummett says, as the campaign's jester, like during this televised Republican candidate debate.

(Soundbite of Republican debate)

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Nominee): We've had a Congress that spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop and it's high time...

(Soundbite of applause)

FROELICH: But a standup personality isn't everything in a presidential campaign, money is, says Arkansan Mike Huddler(ph).

Mr. MIKE HUDDLER: Mike really did a great job as governor and I really look - I think he'd make a great president. I don't know if he's going to have enough money in his war chest, but, hey, I think he did a good job.

FROELICH: Of all the so-called second tier Republican candidates, Huckabee has gotten the biggest bounce out of his performances in both the debates and the Iowa Straw Poll. And even if that isn't enough to propel him to the nomination, some here say they wouldn't be surprised if he still found himself on a ticket as the vice presidential nominee.

For NPR News, I'm Jacqueline Froelich in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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