Ten days before the start of the primaries, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is a hot item. He is leading the polls among Republican candidates in Iowa - the first state to cast its votes - and is increasingly gaining in the state that will follow, New Hampshire. Moreover, he is neck and neck in national surveys with former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Huckabee could be the next president. He is one of seven candidates with realistic chances: Huckabee, Giuliani, Senator John McCain, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the Republicans; senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the former senator and vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, for the Democrats. That is how open this race has become.
Earlier this summer, Huckabee was a candidate who appeared to have no chance. Romney had a sound lead in Iowa, and Giuliani was confidently ahead in the national polls. McCain's campaign - he the backer of staying in Iraq - appears to be done. Fred Thompson was a candidate people believed would steal the votes of the Christian right. How fast the wheel has turned: Giuliani is in a free fall, and it is not clear what, if anything, will stop it; McCain, at least in New Hampshire, is on the rise, and Romney is falling. Thompson appears to have become a non-factor.
But Huckabee, with his friendly sense of humor, his compassionate conservatism - which at times reminds you of the promises of George Bush - and mostly his religious message makes him the hero of the moment.
On Christmas eve, Huckabee's message resonated among Iowan voters the most: "I know this is probably a very controversial thing, but may I say to you, Merry Christmas!" He was referring to the ire the politically correct greeting "happy holidays" has stirred among many Iowan voters. Huckabee wears his Christianity on his sleeve unapologetically. In his holiday broadcast - which upset not a few liberal commentators, but also some conservatives - he referred to "the celebration of the birth of Christ."
This is a catchy message in Iowa, where 37 percent of the Republican voters identify with the Christian right, compared with 16 percent in New Hampshire. But more significantly perhaps, is that the message is helping Huckabee - a Baptist minister - remind voters that Romney, his main rival in Iowa, is a Mormon.
"Many evangelicals won't vote for a Mormon for president of the United States for the same reason that almost all Jews would not vote for a candidate, for any office I expect, who is a member of Jews for Jesus," explained political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
Regarding the conduct of Huckabee in the White House, there is a lot we do not know. Like another governor from the same state, Bill Clinton, Huckabee has little experience in foreign affairs. Nonetheless, last week he dropped a bomb in an article he published in Foreign Affairs, where all the other candidates have contributed articles. He wrote of "urgent concerns" regarding Iran's nuclear program and its support for militants, saying that he does not discard the military option. But he was critical of the Bush foreign policy, which he described as "arrogant bunker mentality."
In the Iranian context, his policy is being interpreted as a change, calling for bringing to the table non-military options as well. Huckabee is of the opinion that relations with Iran deteriorated following Bush's "axis of evil" speech. In many points his message on Iran is more akin to that of the Democrats: there is a need for dialogue with Iran, and more diplomacy is needed. He quoted the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who authored The Art of War 2,500 years ago: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."
Huckabee has vowed that "Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons on my watch," but that does not assuage Israeli observers who are not too pleased with his stance.
In regard to "the Israeli point of view," Huckabee's statements received a score of 2.75 on a scale of 1 to 5 from the "Israel Factor" panelists, and most were not absolutely convinced of his ability to ensure that Iran would not acquire nuclear weapons on his watch.
The panelists also expressed doubt in Huckabee's ability or willingness to stand by his promises, giving the candidate a score of only 1.87 out of 5 from panelists on the issue.
The Republican figures from Iowa, according to pollster.com, show Huckabee at 32.6 percent, Romney 23.8 percent, Thompson 9 percent, Giuliani 8.7 percent, McCain 6.8 percent, and Ron Paul 5.8 percent.