LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Losing 110 pounds was no mean feat, but Gov. Mike Huckabee may find it more difficult to shed a reputation for verbal gaffes and ethics lapses if he pursues the presidency.
Huckabee, who is weighing a bid for the 2008 GOP nomination, has burnished his political credentials with a term heading the National Governors Association, and has drawn national attention for his dramatic weight loss.
Yet, he has repeatedly had to defend against slips of the tongue and ethics controversies.
Arkansas' Ethics Commission has admonished Huckabee for violations five times in 14 years, once for taking money from an organization whose donors have never been listed. He jokingly attributed his weight loss to a "concentration camp" diet and once called his state a "banana republic."
And last week, he lashed out after reporters questioned wedding-gift registries set up to furnish Huckabee's new $525,000 home in North Little Rock. Friends this fall set up the accounts for Huckabee and his wife Janet, who have been married since 1974.
"I can understand him being upset with people thumbing through his registry, but if he's thinking seriously about running for president, he needs to get used to that," said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver. "If his name exists anywhere on the Internet, people will find it pretty quickly."
It seems that for every popular cause that Huckabee has championed — healthy living, education reform, insurance for the poor — he's tangled with campaign finance officials, reporters and political enemies who question his ethics.
On his monthly call-in show on the Arkansas Educational Television Network last week, Huckabee said he had figured out why he's a target.
"If you can't attack me on my record for children's health care, if you can't attack me on my record for education, if you can't attack me on the record for our highway program or for technology or for natural resources, what are you left to do? Make personal attacks," he said.
In 2000, Huckabee angered state Democrats with an attack of his own, telling Don Imus' national radio audience that Arkansas was a "banana republic" and that Democrats would attempt to steal the presidential election from Republican George W. Bush.
This year, as Imus interviewed Huckabee about his 110-pound weight loss after a diabetes diagnosis, the governor joked that he had spent time in a concentration camp. Huckabee dismissed a Jewish group's criticism, saying he hadn't made a reference to Jews or the Holocaust.
"I hate to think I'd have to live my life without a sense of humor," Huckabee said.
Veteran Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz said each of the potential presidential candidates brings critics and baggage with them to the campaign trail, but Huckabee should be able to withstand scrutiny.
"You've got to be tough. You've got to have a thick skin and you've got to have a sense of humor," said Luntz, is not working in a 2008 presidential race. "That sounds like Mike Huckabee to me."
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, rarely works from a prepared text, preferring to speak extemporaneously, and nearly always taking reporters' wide-ranging questions after public appearances.
And after a GOP state senator put forth legislation to ban state services for illegal immigrants, the governor said the senator drank a different "Jesus juice" than him.
But Huckabee's less happy to answer questions about money, his wife or both, telling a pair of reporters: "I feel you've done a real disservice to the people of this state. You've created the impression that my wife has gone out and solicited gifts, which is absolutely untrue."
Huckabee said he doesn't see any ethical problems with accepting the gifts, which are allowed as long as they are worth less than $100 — unless based on a "bona fide personal, professional or business relationship."
Gifts to spouses are allowed if not used to bypass the law. Wedding gifts are allowed, too.
Huckabee said the gift registries were set up under "weddings" because Target and the Dillard's department store did not have a registry for housewarmings.
The state Ethics Commission has investigated 14 complaints against Huckabee and validated five. Two pertain to unreported gifts — a $500 canoe and a $200 stadium blanket — and three to cash the governor or his wife received but did not initially report:
—$43,150 from his 1994 lieutenant governor's campaign for use of his personal airplane,
—$14,000 Janet Huckabee received from his 1992 U.S. Senate campaign, and
—$23,500 from a tax-exempt organization he incorporated with others in 1994, but whose funding source isn't known. The Action America organization, Huckabee said, was set up to coordinate parts of his private-sector speaking schedule during his three years as lieutenant governor.
Huckabee appealed the stadium blanket sanction and a judge threw out the $250 fine.
"In all of these complaints and attacks, not one has resulted in it being found that I've done something illegal," said Huckabee, who has seen nine ethics complaints rejected. "You don't hear the resolve which made the back page. You hear the accusations, which make the front page."