Quipping Ahead

Mike Huckabee’s prolific use of charm continues. Today, on Fox News, Huckabee was asked to respond to an under-the-radar critique from Mitt Romney that he cares more about illegal immigrants’ right to a college education than he does about U.S. students. Per Politico , here’s Huckabee’s response: “I guess Mitt Romney would rather keep people out of college so they can keep working on his lawn.”

Bam! Pow! Zing! In one sentence, Huckabee managed to do three things:

  • Avoid capitulating on a pro-immigrant-education stance he took while governor, one that is sure to be unpopular with the conservative base he’s courting.
  • Portray his support of immigrants and higher education as tenets of compassionate conservativism. Tacitly, he’s also suggesting that Romney is a cruel education-hater.
  • Show that Romney isn’t as pure on illegal immigration as he would like voters to think he is. The lawn work Huckabee’s alluding to comes from a Boston Globe story that alleges Romney employed illegal immigrants to maintain the grounds of his Belmont, Mass., home.

Relative to Huckabee, Romney mustered a bland reply. I’ll spare you the full text, but the gist was that Romney isn’t afraid to use the veto to make sure illegal immigrants’ lives don’t get priority over the lives of American citizens.

A bit of background on this sniping: While governor of Arkansas, Huckabee supported equal in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants at public colleges. While governor of Massachusetts, Romney vetoed similar legislation. In my pre-Trailhead days I made a short documentary on the fight over the Massachusetts bill, which by most accounts would have made a positive impact on the state’s economy. Romney equated the program with amnesty and refused to sign it into law. Immigration advocates weren’t able to find a veto-proof majority, and the legislation never came to pass.

When you zoom out a bit, this little tiff is an illustrative example of the difference between the two candidates’ campaigns. Both men are atypical Republicans–Romney is a formerly pro-choice Mormon who worked toward creating a universal health-care plan in his state. Huckabee, meanwhile, is a formerly obese creationist who is willing to tax constituents in order to aid government services.

While Romney is careful not to emphasize pieces of his past that may alienate him from conservatives, Huckabee has found a way to embrace his idiosyncrasies. Sure, that makes him a target of the Republican establishment at times. But those attacks don’t seem to be resonating as deeply as his charm. The latest poll puts Huckabee six percentage points behind Romney in Iowa. Romney may soon have to get serious about maintaining his lead.