Huckabee's Critics Growing Louder

Republican Presidential candidate Gov. Mike Huckabee, left, shakes hands with supporters during a campaign stop in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, Dec. 27, 2008.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's surging campaign is facing increased attacks from a conservative anti-tax group this week, as well as criticism from Hispanic activists in his home state of Arkansas, who say they feel betrayed by the former governor.

Helped by a major GOP donor who bankrolled ads that questioned Democrat John Kerry's war record during the 2004 campaign, the Club for Growth is spending $175,000 to continue running ads in Iowa that highlight tax increases adopted in Arkansas when Huckabee was governor. During the past three weeks, the group has spent $550,000 to criticize Huckabee's economic policies.

According to Federal Election Commission records, received $200,000 this month from Bob Perry, a Houston homebuilder who in 2004 pumped nearly $4.5 million into the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth to pay for unsubstantiated ads that questioned Kerry's Vietnam service.

Perry contributed $2,300, the maximum allowed, to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is Huckabee's top rival in Iowa. Romney has been running his own ads against Huckabee, criticizing his record on immigration and taxes.

Perry has donated to the Club for Growth in the past, including $150,000 during the 2006 election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Another major donor is Jackson T. "Steve" Stephens Jr., a Little Rock, Ark., businessman and member of the Club for Growth's board of directors. Stephens is a longtime critic of Huckabee who once considered running against him for governor. He has donated $200,000 to the group, including $100,000 this month.

"Most Iowans have figured out this is a Washington special interest that's attacking the governor," Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman said. "It's one or two people with a lot of money."

On CBS' The Early Show, Huckabee said the positive tone of his campaign presents a welcome contrast with the message of his opponents.

"I've got a lot of Washington special interest groups attacking me," Huckabee said. "But we've ran a positive campaign because I think American voters are looking for not someone who can disable the opponents but somebody who can lead the country. I'm betting the farm on the fact they want a president who can lead forward, not just attack from the side."

Stephens owns ExOxEmis Inc., a biomedical business that produces enzyme-based therapeutic drugs. Like Perry, Stephens has contributed large sums to the Club for Growth in the past.

Club for Growth spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said Stephens' presence on the board and his contributions are not driving the campaign against Huckabee.

"He is on our board and is a voice as much as any other member," she said. "If you look at Huckabee's record, on economic issues, he's is the worst Republican in this race."

Huckabee is also taking heat from Hispanic activists who viewed him as a voice of moderation on illegal immigration, but now say they've been taken aback by the hard-line stance he's adopted as a presidential candidate.

While governor, Huckabee gained favor with Hispanic leaders by denouncing a high-profile federal immigration raid and suggesting some anti-illegal immigration measures were driven by racism. He advocated making children of illegal immigrants eligible for college scholarships.

Huckabee's Republican presidential rivals have tried to make an issue of the scholarship plan, portraying him as soft on illegal immigration, an important issue for many GOP voters.

Huckabee responded this month by unveiling a plan to seal the Mexican border, hire more agents to patrol it and make illegal immigrants go home before they could apply to return to this country.

He's also touted the support for his candidacy of the founder of the Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal immigration group whose volunteers watch the Mexican border.

Though he still defends the scholarship provision, Huckabee's new tone bothers Hispanic leaders like Carlos Cervantes, the Arkansas director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"He's trying to be tougher on immigration than we've ever seen him before," Cervantes said. "That's kind of worrisome now. He was willing to work with the communities. I don't see that he's willing to work with us now."

In 2005, Huckabee tried to make children of illegal immigrants eligible for scholarships and in-state college tuition.

Joyce Elliott, the former state representative who sponsored the scholarship measure, said she originally had wanted to offer just in-state tuition, but Huckabee's office asked her to add the scholarship provision.

"The notion I got from him is that he believed it was the right thing to do," said Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock.

The measure ultimately failed in the Legislature that year and has now become a favorite talking point for Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, GOP rivals who want to paint Huckabee as soft on illegal immigration.

Huckabee, who left office in January 2007 after 10 years as governor, said in a debate last month: "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that."

It's that kind of rhetoric that Hispanic activists praised when Huckabee was in office. The same year Huckabee backed the scholarship provision, he criticized the federal government for a raid on an Arkadelphia poultry plant.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents arrested 119 illegal workers in the raid at a Petit Jean poultry plant, sending 107 out of the country either voluntarily or through deportation.

Huckabee also opposed a GOP lawmaker's efforts in 2005 to require proof of legal status when applying for state services that aren't federally mandated and proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Huckabee derided the bill as un-American and un-Christian, saying the sponsor - former state Sen. Jim Holt - drank a different "Jesus juice."

Holt has traveled to Iowa to campaign against the former governor on a trip paid for by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Former LULAC President Hector Flores said he's troubled by Huckabee's more recent stance on immigration, which he considers a reversal.

"I think he's getting bad advice," Flores said. "I don't know who he's listening to. That's not the progressive attitude that I sensed and observed two years ago in Arkansas from Governor Huckabee."

Huckabee's Hispanic supporters say there's been no change in his position and that despite his moderate tone, the former governor never called for amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"I don't think he ever said we need to give somebody a free ticket," said Ephrain Valdez, who was appointed by Huckabee to the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission. "He's socially moderate, but he's also practical. Practicality needs to be the emphasis there."