Suddenly, it's Huckabee. The surge of the former Arkansas governor in the race for the Republican nomination has the pell-mell excitement of one of Napoleon's victorious rampages across Europe in his heyday. In this case, the long faces belong not to the crowned heads of the Grand Alliance but to the Republican establishment, quivering with terror at the thought of their doughty standard bearer in 2008 being a former Baptist minister, a fellow who thinks God created the world 6,000 years ago more or less in its current form, that the Bible is literal truth.




The great dread of American political establishments down the decades has been that a wild man will suddenly sneak past all obstructions cunningly devised to repel uncomfortable surprises and upset the apple cart. Democrats even today shiver at the memory of William Jennings Bryan, another implacable foe of Charles Darwin, who ran on a silver platform in the late 19th century. George Wallace, a redneck governor out of Alabama, ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1968, and Richard Nixon was terrified that he would steal enough votes to throw the race to the Democrat, Hubert Humphrey. A would-be assassin's bullet put paid to that threat.




The clamor about Huckabee's Christian beliefs is overdone, not least among the left whose religious bigotry is particularly unappetizing. A robust majority of all Americans, so polls unfailingly show, maintain they have had personal encounters with Jesus Christ. Ronald Reagan believed and publicly stated more than once that the Apocalypse was scheduled to occur in his lifetime at Megiddo, as excitingly trailered in the Good Book. The soigne Gov. Mitt Romney, now displaced by Huckabee as the front runner, is a Mormon and, unless he is a heretic from the Latter Day Saints on this specific issue, believes that Christ was Lucifer's older brother, as Huckabee has not been slow in pointing out.




But Huckabee should not be dismissed as simply the creature of the Christian fundamentalists who play a very significant role in the Republican primaries and who are currently hoisting him in the polls. Of course they like Huckabee for all the obvious reasons, and because the alternatives are the Mormon Romney or Giuliani, who's hopped from wife to wife, shared an apartment with a male gay couple and favors abortion.




But on many substantive matters, demonstrated during his 10 years as the governor of Arkansas, Huckabee is a progressive, with enlightened views and a record of substantive executive action on immigration, public health, the regressive nature of sales taxes, education of poor kids and the possibility of redemption for convicted criminals.




In his 10 years as governor, Huckabee commuted the sentences of, or outright pardoned, more than 1,200 felons, including a dozen murderers. This was a courageous and unparalleled display of enlightenment in a country whose interest in rehabilitation is near zero. As Huckabee says, should a girl convicted of check-kiting when she was 17 have this felony prevent her from getting a job 30 years later?




Democrats started by chortling over Huckabee's meteoric rise in the national polls. The Democratic National Committee supposedly ordered a moratorium to onslaughts on the Arkansas governor in the hopes that as the nominee, he will be road kill for them in the race next fall. This patronizing posture is already fraying. Huckabee would not be a pushover. He's quick on his feet, has an easy sense of humor and has a powerful appeal to Americans unconvinced by any of the major contenders.




Thus far, beyond hee-haws at his Christian fundamentalism, the most liberals can come up with is that he intervened to save his son from very nasty charges of dog-abuse at a Boy Scout camp and that among those whose sentences he commuted was a rapist, Wayne Dumond, who killed at least one woman after his release. Huckabee should survive these charges, as he should the whines of New York Times columnists that he is unversed in foreign affairs. Both Ronald Reagan and George Bush demonstrated conclusively that a passing glance at a stamp album is the only education required.




Huckabee's single rival as a genuinely interesting candidate is another Republican, Ron Paul, who set a record earlier this week by raising $6 million in a single day. Unlike Huckabee, Paul's core issues are opposition to the war and to George Bush's abuse of civil liberties inscribed in the U.S. Constitution. His appeal, far more than Huckabee, is to the redneck rebel strain in American political life &

the populist beast that the U.S. two-party system is designed to suppress. On Monday night, Paul was asked on Fox News about Huckabee's Christmas ad, which shows the governor backed by a shining cross. Actually, it's the mullions of the window behind him, but the illusion is perfect. Paul said the ad reminded him of Sinclair Lewis's line, that "when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in a flag and bearing a cross." In the unlikely event they had read Lewis, no other candidate would dare quote that line.




Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through . To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at .