My Favorite Nut Job

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Huckabee gave an even more damning glimpse into his inner batshit self in a recent appearance at the Prestonwood Baptist Church near Dallas, where he told audiences that Christians are sitting in the pole position of the race to Armageddon. "If you're with Jesus Christ, we know how it turns out in the final moment," he said. "I've read the last chapter in the book, and we do end up winning."

Winning? I ask Huckabee when, exactly, he thinks victory will arrive. "When I was eighteen, I thought I had it pretty well figured out," he says. "I thought the end of the world was coming at any moment." But when I ask how his views have changed, he says only that he is "less adamant now." Huckabee, with the wisdom of age, apparently believes we have at least a day or two left until the end of the world.

The troubling thing about Huckabee's God rhetoric is that a man who is glad that Christians will "win" at Armageddon must be happy about the rest of us losing. When I press him on whether he believes all non-Christians are eternally damned, Huckabee is evasive. "Being president isn't about picking who goes to heaven and who goes to hell," he says. When none other than Bill O'Reilly hammered him on the same point a day later, Huckabee conceded that "I believe Jesus is the way to heaven."

This God stuff isn't just talk with Huck. One of his first acts as governor was to block Medicaid from funding an abortion for a mentally retarded teen­ager who had been raped by her stepfather — an act in direct violation of federal law, which requires states to pay for abortions in cases of rape. "The state didn't fund a single such abortion while Huckabee was governor," says Dr. William Harrison of the Fayetteville Women's Clinic. "Zero."

As president, Huck would support a constitutional amendment banning abortion and would give science a back seat to religion. "Science changes with every generation and with new discoveries, and God doesn't," he says. "So I'll stick with God if the two are in conflict." Huckabee's well-documented disdain for science was reflected in the performance of the Arkansas school system when he was governor; one independent survey gave the state an F for its science standards in schools, a grade that among other things reflected Huckabee's hostility toward the teaching of evolution.

Huckabee at most times is gentle and self-deprecating in his public address, but when he talks about religion, he gets weirdly combative and obnoxious, often drifting into outright offensiveness. At one appearance, Huckabee — who's been known to make fart jokes in front of the state legislature — said he would oppose gay marriage "until Moses comes down with two stone tablets from Brokeback Mountain saying he's changed the rules." And he recently scored a rare offend trifecta, simultaneously pissing off immigrants, Jews and the pro-choice crowd when he ludicrously claimed that a "holocaust" of abortions had artificially created a demand for Mexican labor.

Huckabee also has a televangelist's knack for getting caught with his fingers in various cookie jars. In his first year as governor, Huck used a $60,000 tax­payer fund for personal expenses like dog food, pantyhose and meals at Taco Bell. (One of his sons — also a very heavy man, as his father was — reportedly joked that "there's not a Huckabee alive that can eat at Taco Bell for seven dollars.") The governor also tried to keep $70,000 in furnishings for the governor's mansion supplied by a local cotton grower, and used inaugural funds to pay for clothes for his wife. "Mike is first and foremost about Mike," says Brantley. "He'll nickel-and-dime whoever he can to line his pockets."

Huckabee has also been accused of paying himself as a consultant to his own senatorial campaign, allowing special interests to pay for airline tickets for his daughter, receiving a canoe from a Coke bottler and — hilariously, if you're wont to laugh at the sheer small-town gauche greediness of it all — setting up a "wedding registry" at Target and Dillard's department stores so citizens could lavish the Huckabees with gifts as they renewed their marriage vows. The long list of desired goodies included twenty-four settings of Lenox "Holiday Nouveau" china, a KitchenAid mixer and a "Jack La Lanne power juicer." If you didn't want to pick out something yourself, the Huckabees were glad to take straight cash. "Message from the couple," the registry noted. "Target GiftCards are welcome."

Brantley suggests that a lot of this behavior stems from a Southern tradition of ponying up to the local preacher. "If you're the pastor of a church and you've got a guy who owns a men's clothing store, you expect the guy to give you a couple of new suits every year," says Brantley. "But Huckabee continued on like that as governor."

The Arkansans I spoke with about Huckabee invariably describe him as thin-skinned and petty. One evangelical Arkansas Republican who has worked in several GOP campaigns says a family member provided free services to Huckabee just as he had for other preachers, believing that he was helping out someone who was "doing the Lord's work." But the extent of Huckabee's gift-gouging, the man says, was unprecedented: "It's never been understood that that's what you do for politicians."

So far, Huckabee's greedy past hasn't prevented him from surging in the polls. Unlike the rest of the woefully underwhelming field of Republican candidates, Huckabee is a sincere, ideologically in-tune champion of a massive and frustrated conservative demographic. The fact that he is succeeding in spite of his obvious and undisguised lunacy is a testament to the desperation of the voting public, which is so hungry for a candidate who actually responds to its needs that it may be willing to overlook extraordinary levels of kookiness. That might also explain the stubbornly high levels of support for Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who, though comparatively saner than Huckabee, have still been cast as the nutty uncles of the campaign's interminable family drama.

Make no mistake, Huckabee can win this thing. None of his four main rivals — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain — can claim to represent the Christian right. His biggest problem is money: Apart from a few prominent bundlers culled from the ranks of Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, Huck has largely been ignored by the big-money players in his own party. But even here he is steadily gaining: After raising $6,000 a day in the first quarter, he is now racking up $30,000 a day, much of it from small donors. That money could enable Huckabee to compete hard in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where his relentless God-humping figures to score big at the polls. "We've got to do well in the early primaries," he says. "If we do, there'll be a total upheaval of the process."

When Huckabee talks like this, he sounds like what he is — the Howard Dean of the Republican Party, an insurgent candidate who shot toward the top by appealing to a disaffected base. But Dean, who ended up stumbling out of Iowa with his balls stuffed in his mouth, learned the hard way that populist campaigns have a way of imploding under the glare of the modern campaign process. Which means: Charm only goes so far if you're full-bore nuts. Huckabee may be able to get away with saying he's not a primate, but he'd better not scream it.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.