NEW YORK (JTA) — Mike Huckabee was a barely known former governor of Arkansas when he attended an October house party on his behalf at the home of Jason Bedrick, New Hampshire’s first Orthodox Jewish state representative.
Which is probably why no major media outlets picked up on the Republican presidential candidate’s radical proposal that day for the Middle East: a Palestinian state — in Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
Since winning Iowa’s GOP caucuses on Jan. 3, however, Huckabee has had no trouble attracting national attention. Though just weeks ago considered the man to beat in key states, including South Carolina and Florida, his numbers have since slipped behind opponent Sen. John McCain.
“He is truly a uniter and not a divider,” Bedrick recently told JTA.
“This is a guy who is very positive, very uplifting, “ added Bedrick, the gabbai at the Chabad synagogue in Wellesley Hills, Mass., where he often spends the Sabbath. “This is a country that needs some healing in addition to leadership. And of all the candidates in all the parties, he is the only top-tier candidate that can provide that.”
Bedrick may see Huckabee as the perfect fit for the White House, but for many American Jews the thought of a staunchly pro-life, ordained Baptist minister as president is a major cause for alarm.
Especially one like Huckabee, who has called on Americans to “take this nation back for Christ,” signed a newspaper advertisement stating that wives should submit to their husbands, and stated that he does not believe in evolution.
As the campaign in Iowa heated up, Huckabee faced increased scrutiny over his use of religion on the campaign trail, including one commercial describing the candidate as a “Christian leader.”
Even as critics have sought to paint Huckabee as religiously intolerant, the former Arkansas governor and many pundits have portrayed him as the embodiment of a new breed of evangelical Christian voter, one who sees not only a religious imperative to stake out conservative positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but also in some instances to take more liberal stands on race, taxes, poverty, immigration and the environment.
He has employed populist rhetoric in slamming the establishment of his own party, challenged its general embrace of free trade, and recently criticized the Bush administration’s “arrogant” approach to international diplomacy.
The combination of Huckabee’s rapid rise, his religiosity and his willingness to buck conservative political orthodoxy has some observers describing him as a refreshing development with the ability to transcend the bitterly partisan atmosphere in Washington.
Others see him as a threat — whether it be liberals worried about the separation of church and state, or Republicans afraid that a Huckabee victory could break up the decades-long alliance between economic and religious conservatives that has produced significant GOP victories.
Huckabee has faced tough criticism of late not only in some liberal corners, but also from several prominent conservative commentators, including George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Robert Novak, Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter.
Despite being a fairly unknown quantity in the Jewish community, Huckabee opted not to attend a presidential forum in October organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition, citing scheduling conflicts. At the time, an analysis of campaign finance records conducted by JTA discovered that Huckabee had not received a single donation from an RJC board member.
Still, Huckabee privately sought out Republican Jews, among them RJC board member Fred Zeidman, a close ally of President Bush.
Zeidman, who met with Huckabee in Washington, described him as a “great guy, bright. Religion is his life.”
Zeidman, who is backing John McCain’s bid for president, said he found nothing troubling in his discussion with Huckabee about his faith or his positions on U.S.-Israel relations.
“Does this affect Israel? In the short run, no,” Zeidman said. “Their interests in Israel are the same as our interests,” he said, referring to evangelical Christians.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC, said he had met with Huckabee “on several occasions” and that the candidate has spoken at an RJC event in Texas.
In the end, some observers say, American Jews — most of whom trend toward the liberal — will find it impossible to get past Huckabee’s conservative Christian faith and rhetoric, even though they translate into staunch support for Israel.
“The more liberal Jews find out about his core values of Christianity, the less they’ll like him,” journalist Zev Chafets told JTA shortly after writing a cover story on Huckabee for The New York Times Magazine.
In 1998, Huckabee told a Baptist convention to “take this nation back for Christ” and said that he “got into politics because I knew government didn’t have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives.”
That same year, his book on America’s “culture of violence” lumped environmentalism with pornography and drug abuse as forces that have “fragmented and polarized our communities.”
Also in ‘98, Huckabee signed on to an advertisement in USA Today supporting “biblical principles of marriage and family life,” one of which stipulates that the “wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”