Huckabee and Wayne Dumond

The Huckabee backlash has begun, fueled in no small part by a recent report by Murray Waas on Huckabee’s role in releasing convicted murderer Wayne Dumond in 1999. Briefly: The article claims that Huckabee “aggressively pushed” to have Dumond paroled, even though victims had written to Huckabee arguing that Dumond would kill again. They turned out to be right—Dumond went on to rape and kill two more women before he was arrested in 2001. Huckabee says he played a minimal role in Dumond’s release, and that the state’s seven-person parole board ultimately made the call. “All of us failed,” he says. He also accuses anyone who questions his behavior of “politicizing” the victims’ deaths.*

But right now, the question is: How much will this hurt Huckabee? If you take as precedent the Willie Horton scandal, which partly sank Michael Dukakis’ campaign in 1988, it could do a lot of damage. That said, the death penalty doesn’t play as large a role in this election as it did in that one. Also, it gives his opponents an opportunity to turn a Huckabee asset—his image as benevolent minister—into a liability. “Critics, and some friends, too, have said Huckabee’s position was deeply influenced by his Christian faith,” writes Byron York in the National Review . With the right spin, what Huckabee might call “mercy” could start to look like weakness—or, if you prefer, “amnesty.”

But who is going to confront Huckabee with this? Mitt Romney isn’t likely to bring up the topic, given that he just survived his own Willie Horton moment . (Romney appointed a judge who released a convicted murderer who went on to kill again.) Rudy Giuliani could raise the issue, but right now Giuliani is counting on Huckabee to keep Romney’s Iowa numbers in check. The last thing he wants to do is derail Huck. I suppose he could save the attack for later, before the South Carolina primary. But by then Huckabee will already be either riding his ethanol-fueled momentum or be facedown in the dust.

If this issue is going to dog Huckabee, it’s going to be because the media pushes it. But it probably won’t be the only ugly story to come up. Chances are, we’ll learn a whole lot more over the coming weeks about why Huckabee isn’t all that beloved in Arkansas.

*(Other complicating factors:
–Dumond’s rehabilitation was considered a darling cause of Arkansas conservatives (including some of Huckabee’s close friends), since one of his victims, Ashley Stevens, was a distant relative of Bill Clinton.
–The first person to reduce Dumond’s sentence down to a total of 39.5 years was Democratic Acting Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
–Dumond was castrated while awaiting his court date, which some say elicited sympathy from Huckabee.
–Four members of the state parole board said Huckabee secretly pressured them to release Dumond.)