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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- As we end this most interesting year, with the serious presidential political season looming just ahead, and with the important out-of-the-starting-gate Iowa caucuses coming up just six days from this date of publication, it might be prudent to start looking at White House aspirants, one at a time.

I find the most interesting so far to be former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher by trade, a rock-ribbed conservative, and a Republican presidential hopeful who by chance also hails from the little town of Hope, Ark., as did predecessor Bill Clinton.

Huckabee these days is best examined through the prism of schadenfreude -- a German word meaning glee at another's misfortune -- because that concept, despite the denials of politicians and media mavens alike, is the very core of what happens in either party at this stage in the riotous multi-candidate primary process employed by Democrats and Republicans alike.

The pattern usually repeats itself every four years:

Obscure candidate announces, and is at first an after-thought, unknown to most of nation. Candidate perseveres. Candidate portrays self as feisty underdog. Candidate highlights positive aspects of personal record. Candidate attracts support and funding. Candidate surges in polls early in process. Opponents begin opposition research. Reporters begin digging. Candidate has feet of clay. Negative stories appear. Aha, candidate isn't perfect! Process accelerates. Stories reach critical mass. Candidate slides back to after-thought status. Opponents and critics celebrate.

Remember Howard Dean, the promising Vermont governor who looked like a can't-miss winner and drew early campaign chips from the Democrats in 2004? A simple red-faced, vein-throbbing yell of exuberance as Dean exhorted young campaign workers -- which made him look a little bit loony on TV -- knocked him out of serious consideration. He is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a thankless job and a pretty crummy consolation prize.

Huckabee, cracked one political analyst last week, "is Howard Dean in slow motion." Except in this case, it looks like Huckabee's "misfortune" and recent spate of negative coverage are truly deserved. He may yet overcome them, but don't bet the ranch on it.

Huckabee was Arkansas lieutenant governor and not a household name even in Arkansas in the summer of 1996, while Clinton was still president. But Clinton's successor as governor, Jim Guy Tucker, was convicted in the Whitewater scandal from which Bill and Hillary emerged relatively unscathed, and Tucker was forced to resign. Huckabee was sworn in during July of that year.

He won election twice after that, serving as the chief executive of Arkansas for more than a decade -- during which time he drew praise for improving the state's public school system, modernizing and expanding its highways and providing health insurance for children of working-poor families unqualified for Medicaid. This was before the federal government showed any interest at all in that field.

In some aspects, Huckabee was eerily similar to the other "man from Hope." A Democratic legislator in Little Rock told The New York Times that the loquacious Huckabee was the "only person I know, other than Bill Clinton, who can pick up a rock and give you a 10-minute talk on it."

Huckabee's conservative message, common-sense economic prescriptions, easy articulation, anti-abortion stance and emphasis on preservation of family struck a chord with Iowa Republicans. Just a few days before Christmas, the respected Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll had Huckabee leading former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Iowa by 8 points -- 33 percent to 28 percent. When the support of evangelical Christians was removed from the equation, however, Romney led Huckabee by 10 percentage points.

Huckabee's surprising surge was accompanied by the process described above, however. It wasn't long before stories appeared in the days before Christmas that made Huckabee seem a questionable bet.

Huckabee, it turns out, was a preacher who believed deeply in the power of redemption, and he pardoned, granted clemency for and commuted the sentences of no fewer than 1,033 convicted criminals in Arkansas during his time as governor -- many of them murderers, rapists and other violent offenders. One of them, Wayne Dumond, may become a household name in 2008 reminiscent of an election-year character from a presidential run 20 years ago, when George Bush the Elder beat Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.

Bush effectively hammered Dukakis throughout the campaign for his pronounced support of a prisoner furlough program in Massachusetts that had freed a murderer named Willie Horton who had been serving a life sentence for stabbing a gas station attendant 17 times and leaving him to bleed to death in a garbage can. Horton wasn't out very long in 1987 before he committed armed robbery and rape.

Dumond, a rapist doing life in an Arkansas prison after implication in a murder and additional rape, drew the support of right-wing evangelicals after it was revealed his first rape victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton, who refused to give him clemency. They claimed his incarceration smacked of politics. The State Parole Board -- after, former members claim, intense pressure from Huckabee (which he denies) -- released Dumond in the late 1990s. In 2001, Dumond was charged with raping and murdering a woman in Missouri. When the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette toted up the records, it found about 10 percent of those who received Huckabee clemency later were sentenced to prison again.

The next revelation was that Huckabee as governor accepted hundreds of gifts totaling well over $120,000 from supporters -- some of whom ended up with posh jobs in his administration -- so many the Arkansas Ethics Commission cited him five times. Expensive his-and-her hunting guns, expensive his-and-her watches, a canoe, fishing rods, fishing tackle, all-expenses-paid trips to Atlanta, and to Las Vegas for a prizefight, a stadium blanket, customized cowboy boots, free cufflinks, a bass guitar, free use of private lodges and cabins, free use of a motorboat, free food, free suits, free shoes, free car repairs, free eye exams, free glasses, free movies, free gas and oil, free gift certificates at Wal-Mart, half-off any meals at Wendy's, free jewelry for the wife, a cashmere-fox fur cape, and a $23,000 inaugural wardrobe for the missus from a Little Rock medical lab entrepreneur -- all are vigorously defended to this day by Huckabee.

"I was never, ever found having received an illegal gift," he told Larry King on CNN last week.

Huckabee also cheesed off fellow conservatives by accusing Dubya's administration in a "Foreign Affairs Journal" article of fostering an "arrogant bunker mentality" when it came to foreign policy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was trotted out to answer that one. She called the accusation "just simply ludicrous."

But of all Huckabee's new serious problems, the one I consider most damaging and most seriously threatening to his presidential chances involves a long-dead dog.

"Newsweek" magazine reported last issue that Huckabee interceded in 1998 when his son David, then 17, was fired from his job as a Boy Scout camp counselor at Camp Pioneer in rural Arkansas after he and a friend were accused of hanging a stray dog by throwing it and a rope over a railing to a 20-foot drop, then -- when that didn't kill it -- slitting its throat, then finally stoning the poor creature to death. The Animal Legal Defense Fund heard about it, got all over the case and asked for a criminal investigation.

"Research shows that if animal abusers are not appropriately penalized for their actions," wrote lawyer Pamela D. Frasch, director of the ALDF's anti-cruelty division, to the Boy Scouts of America national office, "they most likely will continue to commit abusive crimes in the future." The Boy Scouts national office apparently did squat about this. David Huckabee later made Eagle Scout.

The director of the Arkansas State Police at the time, John Bailey, told "Newsweek" he started to look into it, but that Huckabee's chief of staff and personal attorney "leaned on" him to drop the matter. He refused. A few months later, Huckabee fired him. The former FBI chief in Little Rock, one I.C. Smith, corroborates the state police executive's version. He told "Newsweek" Huckabee "without question, was making a conscious attempt to keep the state police from investigating his son."

Huckabee's response to all this is less than convincing. Again using CNN's "Larry King Show" as a forum, he said "categorically, that is absolutely not true. I never used my influence."

He told "Newsweek" the dog was "absolutely, I guess, emaciated" and tried to portray his son's actions as one big misunderstanding and either a mercy killing or almost a matter of self-defense. On CNN he said, "There was a dog that came in. It was mangy. It looked like it was going to attack. He was a staffer at the camp. They put the dog down. They didn't do a good job of talking to the leaders ... there was no criminal activity."

The immensely influential Humane Society Legislative Fund -- now investigating the matter -- says that's because Arkansas is one of the most backward states when it comes to animal cruelty law and that progressive state legislators there were thwarted by Huckabee himself in several attempts to upgrade the state's vague anti-cruelty laws from a misdemeanor to a felony offense. Arkansas is now only one of seven states that consider deliberate, malicious acts to animals a misdemeanor offense. While 29 of those 43 felony cruelty laws (including Iowa's and New Hampshire's) have been passed in the last enlightened decade, says HSLF, "Huckabee and Arkansas did nothing. ... All that came from Huckabee during the ballot campaign was a deafening silence."

I agree with the Humane Society when it opines that "any indication of a family tolerance for malicious animal cruelty sets off alarm bells -- cruelty is a sign of an empathic disconnect and is often an indicator of broader violent tendencies." Eight months ago, David Huckabee was arrested for carrying a loaded .40-caliber Glock pistol through boarding security at the Little Rock airport. He paid a fine and said he forgot to remove it from his carry-on luggage. If you check the blogs on this sordid little subject of a dog-hanging, you'll find many scoffers who contend this won't hurt

Huckabee's chances at all, despite the newly powerful prominence of animal rights groups and their lobbyists and their take-to-the-streets demonstrating members. Oh really? I have two words for the Huckabee defenders: Michael Vick.

I think Huckabee is toast.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Dec. 28 2007