WASHINGTON — Is the thought of Mike Huckabee as president just vaguely scary? Or have we learned enough about the man that we should be hair-on-fire alarmed at the prospect, still pretty remote, that he could actually win?

True, none of his opponents for the Republican nomination inspires much confidence. And it’s amusing to see how thoroughly Huckabee vexes, confounds and unnerves the Republican establishment. You could even argue that the party deserves him. But the nation doesn’t.

Rudy Giuliani, who has led in the national polls for most of the year, seems to want to deal with the rest of the world the way he dealt with the squeegee men and crackhead muggers who once plagued New York City; potentially — and this is hard to believe — he could lower our standing in the world past even the depths to which George W. Bush has brought us. But at least Giuliani, when pressed, admits to harboring fairly cosmopolitan and enlightened views on domestic issues such as abortion, immigration and gun control.

Mitt Romney, who led the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire for months, has disavowed the moderate positions he took on those wedge issues when he was governor of Massachusetts. And down at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson — who famously distrusted organized religion — must have been whirring like a turbine at Romney’s declaration that “freedom requires religion.” But all of Romney’s pandering still hasn’t managed to dispel the notion that, beneath the rhetoric, he’s basically a pretty reasonable guy.

Not so with Huckabee, who has defined himself, basically, as anti-reason.

Much is made, and rightly so, of Huckabee’s vocation as a Baptist minister and his promise that his actions as president would be in accord with his fundamentalist beliefs. “My faith is my life — it defines me. I don’t separate my faith from my personal and professional lives,” he says on his campaign Web site.

Somebody go check Jefferson’s grave; he’s spinning again.

The truth is, though, that as governor of Arkansas, Huckabee didn’t behave like the theocrat he makes himself out to be. His absolute reverence for human life didn’t stop him from enforcing the death penalty, for example. I do believe that if he became president he would do everything in his power to deny women the right to reproductive choice, and that alone is reason enough to fear his emergence as a legitimate contender. On many other issues, Huckabee as governor was pragmatic and fairly moderate.

It would be ridiculous, in this day and age, to have a president who completely rejects evolution, saying to those who disagree, “If you want to believe that you and your family came from apes, I’ll accept that.” But at least he pledges not to try to keep schools from teaching accepted scientific truth.

OK, I’m being overly thankful for small favors. Huckabee’s religious certainty would be problematic — possibly even disastrous — if he were to let it dictate his official actions. I guess I worry even more about clear signs that he’s simply not up to the job, and that he’s also not the nice guy he seems to be.

It matters that Huckabee seems to have been the last person in the country to learn that U.S. intelligence agencies now believe that Iran ended its nuclear weapons program four years ago. And it matters that so much of his gorgeous rhetoric is devoid of actual meaning.

In the debate Wednesday, for example, he answered a question about education with an eloquent, and apparently learned, disquisition on left-brain and right-brain thinking and the need to teach art and music so that going to school isn’t just a boring grind. That sounds great, until you recall that it’s in the boring, grind-it-out subjects where American students are lagging. Did he mean that our schools should teach less math and science? Or was it just a bunch of words designed to convey a certain sophistication in his thinking?

Even more troubling is the way he deals with questions about Romney’s Mormon faith. Huckabee studied theology as a seminarian, yet when asked about Mormonism he becomes a country bumpkin who doesn’t know anything beyond the rumors he has heard. He apologizes later — as he did this week for his false suggestion that Mormons believe Satan is Jesus’ brother — but by then, of course, the damage is done. Huckabee could easily allay fundamentalist voters’ qualms about Romney’s beliefs, or at least put them in context. He chooses not to.

That doesn’t strike me as a very Christian way for an ordained minister to behave.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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