WASHINGTON - Mike Huckabee is already making history.
The Baptist preacher, former Arkansas governor and current Republican presidential candidate pulled all of 4 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers in Iowa in a poll from last spring. In a summer poll, that already low figure declined to 1 percent. By Dec. 13, following the final Republican presidential candidate debate before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 of next year, Huckabee had become the Republican front-runner in Iowa and nationally, tallying above 30 percent of support from likely-to-vote Republicans in various polls.
No GOP contender has ever come from so far off the pace, so fast.
Pervasive analysis has attributed the performance to a splintered Republican field, with no candidate commanding allegiance from the GOP rank and file. Huckabee's ability to disarm skeptics with humor, as for instance in an Internet-based endorsement from action-film and television actor Chuck Norris and in his stints as a bass guitarist in his own rock 'n' roll band, has gotten some credit for his improved showing, as has his ability to connect with voters non-verbally, through gestures and expressions that strike them as genuine. Above all, though, political observers believe his staunch evangelical faith has given conservative Christian voters an alternative they don't find in other Republican candidates. Since Christian conservative Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas withdrew, citing voter apathy, Huckabee has been unchallenged as a defender of conservative faith on the social front.
But Huckabee's faith-based stands have also raised doubts about his viability as a national candidate, despite his rising poll numbers. He flat-out opposes abortion, supports the teaching of creationism in schools and has gone out of his way to state in public that he doesn't believe in evolution. Also deemed detrimental to his national aspirations has been an acknowledged lack of experience in foreign affairs and defense.
He has bucked Republican orthodoxy on two points that could have national ramifications, however: immigration and taxes. Going back to his three terms as governor in Arkansas, he has insisted that the children of immigrants should not be penalized for misdeeds their parents may have committed in entering the United States, a conspicuous break with a wing of the party that characterizes any consideration for illegal immigrants as ''amnesty.''
In addition, Huckabee has drawn fire from fiscal conservatives, in particular the group Republicans for Growth, for raising taxes as governor of Arkansas. He has returned fire by styling his critics ''Republicans for Greed,'' an unthinkable response for any mainstream Republican in recent years.
Unlike Brownback, who in March sponsored a Senate resolution that would apologize to ''all Native peoples'' on behalf of the United States for ''a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies,'' Huckabee's campaign of faith has not led him to Indian country. Larry Lasley, executive director of the only federally recognized tribe in the state, the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa near Tama, Iowa, said Huckabee has not courted the tribe or the Indian vote in the state. ''Not that I know of, as far as his making any effort to contact us ... Historically the tribe here has always voted Democrat.''
Huckabee's campaign, operating on a shoestring so far, may have other chances. His rising candidacy has attracted contributions. The consensus of opinion is that a win in Iowa Jan. 3, coupled with a respectable showing in New Hampshire Jan. 8 - and polls predict both outcomes are possible - would bring in enough further donations to keep Huckabee competitive until Feb. 5, when the votes from a cluster of states may determine the presidential nomination.