Huckabee Attacked for Tax Record

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's strong showing in recent public opinion polls in Iowa brings out new foes. The Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, is telling anyone who will listen about tax hikes that Huckabee supported as governor of Arkansas.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The latest polls out of Iowa show former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee surging ahead in the Republican presidential race there. Huckabee is polling a strong second behind Mitt Romney heading into Iowa's January 3rd caucuses. But success has brought more scrutiny, and one fiscally conservative interest group is taking aim at Huckabee for his record on taxes using the candidate's own words against him.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Is Mike Huckabee fine with taxes? The anti-tax Club for Growth thinks so and is circulating this Internet video of then-Governor Huckabee in a 2003 speech to the Arkansas legislature.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): There's a lot of support for a tax at the wholesale level for tobacco, and that's fine with me. I will very happily sign that. Others have suggested a surcharge on the income tax. That's acceptable. I'm fine with that.

Mr. DAVID KEATING (Club for Growth): It was quite a remarkable display of being willing to sign off on a tax increase.

ELLIOTT: David Keating is executive director of the Club for Growth.

Mr. KEATING: For someone who claims to be a fiscal conservative, he has a surprising acceptance of tax increases at the state level. So we see a record of higher taxes and higher spending during the time that he was governor.

ELLIOTT: Huckabee is fighting back.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Their tactic's got to be some of the most despicable in politics today. That's why I love to call them the Club for Greed.

ELLIOTT: On "FOX News Sunday," Huckabee defended his economic record and said the group took his speech out of context.

Mr. HUCKABEE: What they did, they took a one-minute clip out of about a 20-minute speech. And if you listen to the entire context, what you find is that we were dealing, at that point, with a real crisis. We had come to an impasse in our previous regular session. This was a special session. We were a few days away from having no budget and shutting state government down.

ELLIOTT: In 2003, the state was facing close to a $100 million deficit. Political scientist Jay Barth of Arkansas's Hendrix College says Arkansas traditionally has a bare-bones budget, and so lawmakers had to either cut services or find new revenue to balance it.

Professor JAY BARTH (Hendrix College): That's what was kind of driving the desperation that I think everybody was feeling to get something done, to allow Medicaid checks to continue to go out, to allow education to continue to be funded, all of those kind of basic state services which were really coming under threat.

ELLIOTT: He says Huckabee's speech was designed to let lawmakers know he was open to a wide range of solutions. The legislature ended up raising taxes for two years on higher income earners. Huckabee says as president he would not raise taxes. He favors abolishing the income tax in favor of a national sales tax. He calls it the fair tax.

Barth says the dispute over Huckabee's tax record shows that even though he's socially conservative, Huckabee doesn't fit into the traditional conservative Republican stereotype.

Prof. BARTH: I think the Club for Growth would, as they would have it, that he woke up every morning trying to think about how to raise taxes. That's not accurate. On the other hand, the Huckabee campaign's response that he only passed taxes when, you know, a gun was to his head, that he had to do it, that's not accurate either. What's the middle and probably more accurate is the fact that here's somebody who is a conservative but who also sees a role for government in people's lives.

ELLIOTT: But even in context, independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says Huckabee's tax record could hurt him.

Mr. STUART ROTHENBERG (The Rothenberg Political Report): The Club for Growth attacks, coming right at this time, this is really a crucial time for Huckabee, because as he's introducing himself, he can't afford for people who don't know anything about him for the first thing that they hear is he's for higher taxes.

ELLIOTT: For his part, Huckabee is trying something a little different to introduce himself to voters.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. HUCKABEE: My plan to secure the border? Two words: Chuck Norris.

ELLIOTT: In this new television ad, tough guy Chuck Norris stands behind Huckabee.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. CHUCK NORRIS (Actor): Mike's a principled, authentic conservative.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Chuck Norris doesn't endorse. He tells America how it's going to be.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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