WASHINGTON — Mike Huckabee, who just stepped down as Arkansas’ governor, is the brightest star among Republican presidential dark horses.

It’s not just because he, like a certain other Arkansan, has ties to a town called Hope, nor because he lost 105 pounds and has written a popular diet book. And it’s not only because he is mastering a conservative form of triangulation blending religious conservatism with policy pragmatism.

Huckabee, if he chooses to run for president in 2008, has another asset: While front-runners John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have placed large bets on the success of President Bush’s Iraq policy, Huckabee has maintained what you might call loyal distance.

This is what Huckabee said in an interview here last week when I asked him about the surge: “The honest answer for me is that I’m not subjected to the same piles of military and diplomatic information and intelligence that he [Bush] has, and I’m going to have to trust that the advice that he’s based his decision on as commander in chief is good. I don’t honestly know. I hope it’s right. I have to hope that, because there are going to be people from my state that are going to be asked to go and make it right.”

There was also this: “The president’s plan is one that sort of lays it all out there for him. If it works then, thank God, we may have a stable Iraq and we’ll finally be able to start a complete turnover to them. If it doesn’t, you know he’s really put a lot of things at risk, including the lives of young Americans.”

The words that stand out are for him. The president is taking this risk himself, not on behalf of the entire Republican Party. If Republicans want a conservative nominee who has never attacked Bush on Iraq but can still signal a change in direction, Huckabee could be their man.

Huckabee is the Republican to watch, especially if former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts doesn’t gain traction. Like Romney, Huckabee was a governor and can brag about expanding health coverage in his state (even if Romney’s plan was bolder).

But Huckabee is also a Southerner with unassailable Christian evangelical credentials: A Baptist minister, he attended Ouachita Baptist University and was president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

Huckabee makes the case that he was an effective governor who happens to be a serious evangelical, not the other way around. “I’m unapologetic with the conservative evangelicals, and pro-life,” he said. “But if people look at my record, what they’re going to see is that the focus of my time as governor was education reform … transportation … health initiatives. …”

An aide helpfully interjects “large tax cuts,” and after talking about those, Huckabee goes on: “I think the Republicans have got to be engaged in the protection of the environment. We’ve not been on the front of that. We need to be. From my perspective, that’s a position that I ought to have not only as a Republican conservative, but as an evangelical. Evangelicals ought to be concerned about the stewardship of the Earth.”

If it all works, Huckabee would become The Next New Republican Thing: an affable evangelical who talks about issues that secular and middle-of-the-road voters care about. The potential downside — “by trying to please everyone, will Huckabee please no one?” — was nicely captured a couple of years ago by the Arkansas Times, a progressive paper that will be must reading if Huckabee runs. “Will moderates who like his positions on health care and education be turned off by his uncompromising social conservatism?” the paper asked. There’s the rub.

What Huckabee understands better than most Washington-based Republicans is why, with the call-ups of so many National Guard members and reservists, the Iraq war is creating such apprehension, even in the conservative heartland.

“When a person is in a Guard unit, two months ago, he was selling nails in a hardware store or he was a police officer on the beat or he was a schoolteacher. … And he’s probably a little older, and he has kids, and he’s well established in the community. When he’s killed, the impact has dramatic effect in that community because they didn’t expect that this citizen-soldier was going to be subject to that prospect.

“That’s why I think that what we’re seeing is that there is very strong support for the soldiers,” he concludes, “but there’s a lot of angst about the war itself.” And that’s why a faithful Republican with no ties to Bush’s Iraq policy could be very popular come 2008.

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

Copyright 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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