Huckabee under Fire before Ames Straw Poll

With the upcoming straw poll in Ames, Iowa a make-or-break moment for second-tier GOP presidential candidates – and for Mitt Romney, the only major candidate not to skip the event – tensions at the bottom are flaring up. The Club for Growth — a group known for translating its strict economic conservatism into large cash expenditures in Republican primaries to weed out so-called “Republicans in Name Only” – has made its first TV ad of the 2008 campaign, spending $85,000 in the Des Moines/Ames market to accuse former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee of “a willingness to slap a tax increase on everything from groceries to nursing home beds.”

Huckabee denied the tax-and-spend charge, which is a rehash of the Club for Growth’s “white paper” against Huckabee from January.

But that’s not Huckabee’s only problem. While Mitt Romney’s campaign has had to deal with anti-Mormon sentiment among some conservative Christians, which many see as parallel to John F. Kennedy facing anti-Catholicism in 1960, one Huckabee supporter decided to turn back the clock, targeting Catholic Sen. Sam Brownback. One Rev. Tim Rude, in an e-mail sent to Iowa Evangelicals, noted that Huckabee, unlike Brownback, is “one of us”:

Huckabee is an evangelical. He has not learned how to speak to evangelicals; i.e. Bush 41 & 43. He is one of us. I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002. Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor’s. I don’t if this fact is widely known among evangelicals who are supporting Brownback.

Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, has made much of his pious past. He’s called on religious-right activists choosing candidates “to be Christian leaders, not Republican leaders,” and of the potential nomination of Rudy Giuliani, he said back in April,

I am Christian first; I am a Republican second. And so, my convictions are what led me to the Republican Party. And I am not saying that I would never vote for a person who is different from me, because obviously I have to vote for a lot of people who are different than me and have different views. But my value system is the one thing I have to hold on to. A hundred years from now, which party is in power is not going to make a whole lot of difference, but whether I was true to my moral compass means everything.

Huckabee disavowed Rude’s comments – which was good enough for the Catholic League. But given the stakes for the two long-shot candidates, both competing for the all-important narrow slice of the electorate – conservative Christian Republicans in Iowa – neither is looking to back down. Brownback’s campaign called his apology “tepid,” and Huckabee’s campaign fired back hard – telling Brownback to “stop whining and start showing some of the Christian character he seems to always find lacking in others.”