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Club vs. Huck

The last month has been the best one of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He appears to be emerging as a viable conservative alternative -- rising in polls in Iowa and finally putting together a serious fundraising effort.

There's just one problem with this rosy scenario. And, its name is the Club For Growth.

The Club, a D.C. based organization that proudly touts both its fiscal conservatism and its willingness to dabble in contested Republican primaries, seems intent on not allowing Huckabee to coalesce the Republican conservative base behind his candidacy.

From the start of Huckabee's campaign -- literally -- the Club has been hounding the former Arkansas governor for what its leaders believe is his support of big government and higher taxes.

Their latest gambit is a web video that seeks to paint Huckabee as flatly dishonest when it comes to his past statements about supporting an increase in the gas tax in Arkansas.

Here's the video:

Wow. Pat Toomey, a former Pennsylvania Congressman and president of the Club, was similarly vituperative about Huckabee's record in an interview with The Fix this week. Toomey referred to Huckabee as a "serial tax hiker" and a "pro-life, pro-gun liberal."

Toomey explained the Club's jihad against Huckabee in simple terms. "For the sake of accuracy and because we think he would be so damaging to the Republican brand, we think it's important."

Not surprisingly, Huckabee has been far less sanguine about the Club's attack on his record. Campaign manager Chip Saltsman said that the Club's enmity toward Huckabee appears to be the result of a "personal vendetta," adding: "Most people are starting to figure that out. (Toomey, for what it's worth, insists that there is nothing personal about the attacks.)

As for the allegations made by the Club For Growth, Saltsman said that "we've made our record on tax pretty clear." Saltsman argued that because Democrats enjoyed strong majorities in the state legislature during Huckabee's time as governor, he struggled to rein in their approach to taxes and spending. "What the Club for Growth is banking on is people not wanting to do the research," said Saltsman.

Other fiscal conservatives have been more willing than the Club to give Huckabee the benefit of the doubt. Grover Norquist told the National Review's Byron York that Huckabee's willing to sign Americans for Tax Reform's pledge to oppose any tax increases as president is good enough for him.

And, several ">recent posts on the popular conservative blog Red State defended Huckabee's fiscal record and insisted that the Club is not judging other candidates -- most notably former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) -- by the same standards to which it holds Huckabee.

How big a hurdle is the Club's opposition to Huckabee's rise?

On the one hand, it's not likely many people in Iowa or New Hampshire have heard of the Club for Growth or care much about how it feels about Huckabee.

On the other, the Club has shown time and time again an ability to put its money where its mouth is. The Club makes big claims about what it can and will do and then -- unlike many third party organizations -- usually follows through. (I wrote about the Club's winning record in contested primaries last year on The Fix.)

How much impact the Club could have on Huckabee could well depend on how much they are willing to spend against him. Will they fund a serious anti-Huckabee ad campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire? How about a direct mail and phone banking effort against him in these states? And how soon do they move against him if they plan to move against him at all?

And then there is always the law of unintended consequences. What if the Club does go up with television ads attacking Huckabee and Iowa voters view it as an out-of-state group trying to make up their minds for them? That could lead to folks flocking to Huckabee who might not otherwise have supported him.

Ah, politics. Always more questions than answers. But, keep an eye on whether the Club doubles down in their Huckabee critique in the coming weeks and months and, if so, how much money do they put behind the gambit

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 8, 2007; 10:34 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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