Mike Huckabee’s Willie Horton?

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The most misunderestimated fellow in American politics, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has been leading early GOP presidential preference polls for 2012. Last Friday and Saturday, Huckabee flashed his “aw, golly” charms at 10 Texas book stores, drawing sizable crowds—”thousands” in Midland alone, according to the local paper—as he promoted his seventh book, A Simple Christmas. And then, on Sunday, Huckabee’s campaign suddenly looked like a non-starter—for the most grimly ironic of reasons. Beneath the flurry of Sarah Palin headlines, the runner-up to John McCain in 2008 (Huckabee polled 38 percent in the Texas primary) has been making smart moves to launch a second campaign. A best-selling, heart-warming book that’s not half-awful doesn’t hurt. Neither does Huckabee’s eponymous weekend show on Fox, which has established him as the undisputed leader of the kinder, gentler wing of the Tea Party movement—a former Southern Baptist preacher who can deliver a heartfelt and respectful tribute to Sen. Ted Kennedy, play a respectable bass guitar, criticize President Obama (mostly) without anything resembling mean-spiritedness, and jab meaningfully at the excesses of Palin and Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingnuts. With most leading Republicans getting meaner by the day, Huckabee—who went over the top at times in ’08, including his insane idea of revising the Constitution to better reflect “God’s will” (according to whom?)—has only seemed to get nicer. Even when he patters on about his opposition to gay marriage, he doesn’t sound like a hater. Dead wrong, yes; hater, no. No wonder Joy Behar speaks for many liberals—including yours truly, I freely admit—in calling Huck her “favorite Republican.” If we had to see one elected in 2012, his record as a governor—he did some decent things with infrastucture-building, school improvements and criminal-justice reform—is somewhat reassuring. And Huckabee’s frequent deviations from right-wing-nuttery, not to mention his general geniality, would seem to make him the least awful of the many awful other prospects—the vile Newts and Mitts and Sarahs. On Sunday morning, Huckabee talked health care and other subjects on Fox News Sunday with Howard Dean. They argued plenty, not surprisingly, but Dean had to admit at one point, “Mike Huckabee has just said the most sensible thing about health-care reform that I’ve heard in a long time.” (He’d been talking about the need for a new emphasis on preventive care, comparing the U.S. health system to “an NFL football game: 22 people desperately in need of rest and 70,000 people desperately in need of exercise.”) Huckabee also told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace that he was undecided, but leaning against running for president in 2012. Why? He offered sensible reasons: The GOP “establishment” (read: money people) can’t stand him, for one, and President Obama will remain a formidable candidate, for another. But you only had to watch cable news later in the day to know that Huckabee’s flirtation with a second run for president might come to a crashing halt—and right soon. Huckabee, who enraged many Arkansas prosecutors during his governorship with his tendency to have mercy on criminals—especially young ones—may be on the verge of being Willie Hortoned right out of the running. On Sunday, a manhunt was underway in Washington state for Maurice Clemmons, the prime “person of interest” in the shooting deaths of four police officers in a coffee shop. (See Seattle Times story.) In 2000, Gov. Huckabee commuted Clemmons’ lengthy prison sentence in Arkansas, where he had been sentenced for aggravated robbery committed when he was 17. It was one of 111 sentence reductions Huckabee granted as governor. When he commuted Clemmons’ sentence, Huckabee mentioned Clemmons’ age when he was convicted.

After Clemmons’ release, he was convicted of two more armed robberies in Arkansas, got a 10-year sentence, but was released after serving three years for reasons too complicated to mention here. He later moved to Washington, where reportedly—six days before the police officers were gunned down—he had been released on bail while facing pending charges of several felonies including second-degree child rape and third-degree assault for an attack on a police officer.If it already seemed improbable—despite the polls—that a halfway decent sort could win the GOP nomination in 2012, it will soon look downright impossible if Clemmons actually turns out to be the Washington cop-killer. Maurice Clemmons will make Willie Horton (and Wayne Dumond, another convicted criminal released by Huckabee who re-offended grueseomely and caused controversy in 2007) look like small potatoes. If Huckabee even so much as hints at wanting to run, the Republican smear politics once unleashed on Michael Dukakis by George H.W. Bush’s thugs will be turned on the one candidate who might have been their brightest hope in 2012.