While walking the halls of the James H. Hilton Coliseum on the Iowa State University campus where the recent Republican straw poll was being held, I ran into one of my favorite Republican presidential candidates (now turned successful television host), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Not surprisingly, he had some fascinating insights on the 2012 GOP race. More on that in a minute.
First, let me tell you why I like Mike, who reminds me in many ways of the late Arizona Democrat and runner-up to Jimmy Carter for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, Rep. Morris K. "Mo" Udall -- a man cherished for his humor and his humanity. Like Udall, Huckabee suffered from an apparently fatal flaw as a presidential candidate: the inability to convince himself that, unless he was elected to the White House, the Western world could not survive.
As the last standing challenger to John McCain for his party's 2008 nomination, Huckabee was willing to effectively defend unpopular positions he held. After Mitt Romney attacked Huckabee and the Arkansas program that permitted the children of undocumented immigrants to apply for college scholarships -- adding, "Mike, that's not your money; that's the taxpayers' money" -- Huckabee, the first member of his family to graduate from high school, knocked Romney, the son of privilege and wealth, back on his heels.
"I'm standing here tonight on this stage because I got an education. If I hadn't had the education, I wouldn't be standing on this stage, I might be picking lettuce," answered the Arkansan. Then, in case Romney didn't already feel small and petty, Huckabee continued, "In all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did; we're a better country than that."
Asked in another debate, "What would Jesus do" about capital punishment, Huckabee, a longtime Baptist pastor, did not miss a beat: "Jesus was too smart ever to run for office."
That was 2008, and this is 2011, and Mike Huckabee -- who had been the only Republican decisively defeating President Barack Obama in the national polls and who was leading the field for the Republican nomination -- is not running. He told me, and she confirmed, that Janet, whom he married 37 years ago when they were both 18, had urged him to run in 2012.
But he likes doing his characteristically upbeat Saturday night show on the Fox News Channel, where he has welcomed First Lady Michelle Obama and endorsed her campaign against childhood obesity, and which he proudly reveals draws the largest audience of any weekend show on cable news. For someone who has never had two quarters to rub together, he is enjoying a taste of the good life.
Yes, Mike Huckabee believes, without smugness, that he could defeat Barack Obama in a two-candidate November general election. But he is not as confident about winning the 2012 GOP fight in a primary political environment that he sees as "toxic." It is almost, as Huckabee describes it, that the current political environment has been shaped by "Tom Tancredo." The mean-spirited Colorado Republican, among his other contributions to civil discourse, has said that President Obama, who only was elected because we don't have a "civics literacy test before people can vote in this country," constitutes a "more serious threat to America than al-Qaida." That is toxic and venomous.
So the republic will somehow survive without Mr. Huckabee in the fight. But you can be sure that there will be more pander and less candor in this political season without him.
He is no plaster saint, don't get me wrong. He has his faults. But Mike Huckabee also has humor and humanity in a year in which both are sadly scarce in America.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.