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Huckabee sees momentum building; cites Iowa poll

But concedes he is an 'underdog'

Mike Huckabee was governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007. Mike Huckabee was governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said his second-place finish at the Ames straw poll in Iowa last weekend shows he has developed "real momentum" in the Republican presidential race, especially because his campaign turned out its supporters on a shoestring budget, without TV ads or free bus rides.

But in an interview with the Globe editorial board yesterday, Huckabee -- who raised only $1.3 million in the first half of the year, compared with straw poll winner Mitt Romney's $44.4 million -- conceded he can catch up only if his rivals falter or fatally wound one another's candidacies.

"I'm having to bet the farm on certain imponderables taking place, one of which is that somebody's going to goof up and say something that becomes the defining YouTube moment that sends them the way of George Allen," he said, referring to the former Virginia senator and erstwhile presidential hopeful whose infamous racist remark last year wound up as a much-shared Internet video and derailed his political career.

A marathon runner who lost 110 pounds after being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes in 2003, Huckabee said he hopes that if he paces himself, he will follow the path of two other unknown Southern governors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, to the White House.

"I've always been the underdog," he said.

Huckabee said a Republican could not win the presidency if the party's interests aligned more with Wall Street than Main Street, and as someone who came from a working-class family in Hope, Ark., -- also Clinton's hometown -- he said his interests and priorities naturally allied with working people.

The governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007, Huckabee described himself as a "different kind of Republican than people are used to" -- and in Romney's home state, Huckabee couldn't help making a few not-so-subtle digs. He said he did not grow up in a place where "summer is a verb" and that he was running as a true conservative who had "not fished my way through the waters to figure out what would bite."

He acknowledged that fiscal conservatives had criticized him for shepherding a massive transportation bill, financed by a 4-cent gas tax increase, to fix the state's poorly maintained roads.

Huckabee said he was not happy about the gas tax increase, but the roads had to be improved for the sake of the state's economy.

"Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die," said Huckabee, 51, a Baptist minister before he entered politics.

He said one of his top priorities is to overhaul the US healthcare system, which he said focuses too much on treating disease and not enough on improving health.

He also mounted a strong defense of the "fair tax," a proposal to replace the income tax with a national sales tax that would include a tax credit for lower-income families.

None of the leading presidential candidates has endorsed this radical reordering of the tax system, but Huckabee contended that it would attract global corporations and would be a better deal for the bottom one-third of earners.

On Iraq, Huckabee defended the president's decision -- and Congress's vote to authorize the war -- because there was at the time "an overwhelming consensus" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

He said he would not immediately withdraw from Iraq because he does not want to "leave in a way that makes it even worse." He said the United States had not put sufficient pressure on Iraq's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, to help put the country back together.

As for the Rev. Wiley S. Drake, the California preacher and Huckabee supporter who entreated his followers to pray for the death of those who filed a complaint with the IRS alleging that Drake used church resources to endorse Huckabee, the candidate said he disavowed that approach.

"The saving of souls rather than the damning of them would tend to be more my hope," he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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