By Jordan Fabian - 12/01/09 01:18 AM EST
As a debate swirled over his political future, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Monday sought to explain his role in the release of a man suspected of killing four police officers in Washington state.
Huckabee, a 2008 GOP presidential candidate and front-runner in 2012 in some polls, granted clemency nine years ago to 37-year-old Maurice Clemmons, a suspect in the Sunday shooting of four policemen in Lakewood, Wash., a suburb of Tacoma.
Huckabee in 2000 commuted a 95-year prison sentence for Clemmons, who was 17 when he was convicted of aggravated robbery in 1989, according to an Associated Press report. Clemmons was later paroled by the state parole board.
Huckabee, who hosts a talk show on Fox, noted the parole board’s actions in a Sunday statement that spread responsibility for the release. Huckabee also noted that Clemmons had been released by Washington state authorities.
“If I could have known nine years ago, looked into the future, would I have acted favorably upon the parole board’s recommendation? Of course not,” Huckabee said on Fox News Radio on Monday. “One of the things that is horrible and just, again, one of the realities you have to confront is the criminal justice system is far from perfect, and in this case it failed miserably on all sides.”
In a separate statement on Sunday, Huckabee wrote that if Clemmons is found responsible for the shootings, “it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington state.”
Huckabee was also scheduled to appear on Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” Monday night.
A recent Gallup poll also showed Huckabee leading a field of potential 2012 GOP contenders among Republican voters, but a controversy over the Clemmons case could prove crippling.
After winning the Democratic Party’s nomination, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’s 1988 campaign for president was devastated by Republican attacks on his role in the release of Willie Horton on a weekend furlough. Horton did not return to jail, and later raped a woman and assaulted her fiance.
GOP nominee George H.W. Bush’s campaign ran a series of television ads highlighting the incident to portray Dukakis as soft on crime.
Still, some observers on Monday resisted making snap judgments on Huckabee’s political future.
“I think it’s really too early to know, to be honest,” said Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. “The connection is pretty distant and it’s not obvious that the voters would hold Huckabee accountable for this.”
While Huckabee was coming under some criticism in the blogosphere on Monday, the GOP12 blog, which tracks 2012 presidential candidates, posted a “reality check” noting early reactions to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) resignation. Many conservative commentators predicted Palin’s decision would bar her from seeking elected office.
“Before casting Huck’s chances aside, let’s take a look at what prominent conservatives said when Sarah Palin resigned from her post (and it still seems like she’s in the game),” noted blogger Christian Heinze.
Huckabee has been seen not only as a future presidential candidate, but as a candidate for the Senate in Arkansas. He decided against a challenge to Sen. Mark Pryor (D) in 2008, but has been floated as a challenger to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in 2010.
Huckabee was playing down talk of a presidential run on Sunday before he spoke publicly about the Tacoma shootings. On Fox News, Huckabee said Sunday that a bid is “less likely than more likely” at this point.
Huckabee also runs a political action committee — HuckPAC — that endorses conservative candidates nationwide and helps them raise funds. His committee has backed high-profile conservative candidates such as Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell and Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio.
Some members of the public have also reacted strongly against Huckabee — who is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. Internet hijackers altered his Wikipedia page Monday afternoon to make additions calling Huckabee an “idiot.”
A commenter on his HuckPAC blog post about the shootings said, “Sir, you as a Christian man, must face up to your mistake. This is the problem with wearing conservatism on your sleeve but behaving as a social liberal.”
Other critics have claimed the incident demonstrated Huckabee’s poor judgment, considering prosecutors opposed the commutation.
“This is the day I’ve been dreading for a long time,” Pulaski County (Ark.) prosecutor Larry Jegley told The Seattle Times today.
But Hutchings said such criticisms are unlikely to stick should Huckabee run for office.
“Crime is not as salient as an issue for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Jobs, Afghanistan and Iraq are the most prominent issues.”
Hutchings said the charge might work better against a Democratic candidate, since they are more often accused of being softer on law-and-order issues.
“Campaign appeals resonate when they seek to confirm what [people] thought they already knew,” Hutchings added. “When you raise this kind of critique against a conservative Republican candidate like Huckabee, it doesn’t resonate with the traditional stereotypes of the party.”
Though Huckabee has a reputation as being more supportive of social programs than other GOPers, Hutchings said that it is too nuanced a distinction to make the potential attacks effective among the electorate.
“To suggest that a conservative Republican Southern governor is soft on crime … my suspicion is that it won’t resonate,” he noted.