Illustration by Darrow

Among the many dark horses who have enlivened the history of Republican presidential nominating contests, there have been few Seabiscuits more improbable than Patrick Joseph Buchanan. Twelve years ago, Buchanan’s insurgent campaign built upon his protest bid of four years earlier by attempting a novel fusion of rabid social conservatism with hot-eyed economic nationalism. The effort, which consumed more hours of my life than I care now to recall, was endlessly fascinating—and also, it seemed, plainly doomed to fail. The GOP race had an anointed front-runner, Bob Dole. It had a grotesquely funded challenger, Phil Gramm. It had a superrich outsider, Steve Forbes. It had a genial southern governor, Lamar Alexander. There simply didn’t seem to be much daylight for a modern day, religious-righteous incarnation of William Jennings Bryan.

Then all of a sudden, the wind shifted, and Buchanan’s sails caught the gust. He scored an out-of-nowhere victory in the Louisiana caucus, which kicked things off that year. He ran a close second to Dole in Iowa and beat him in New Hampshire. The Bobster, his future hanging by a thread, moved quickly to rally the Republican Establishment to thwart Buchanan, while endeavoring to co-opt the salient bits of his rival’s message—casting doubt on nafta (which Dole had eagerly supported), threatening retaliation against “unfair” trading partners (which no one could recall him ever whinging about in his nearly three decades as a staunchly free-trading senator). Although the strategy ultimately prevailed, it was not without its critics on the true-believing right. George Will, for one, assailed Dole for spouting “watery Buchananism.”

I mention this history—and that phrase in particular—because both have been rattling around my head since the onset of our current moment of unbridled Huckamania. Once again, we have a Republican nominating contest thrown into chaos by the rapid rise of a contender that the political class had almost uniformly written off as an abject no-hoper. Once again, the propulsion of the aspirant in question owes much to his organic, potent connection to the Christian right. And once again, the candidate’s sectarian appeal is being bolstered by a populist economic thrust that may, in the long run, prove equally pivotal.

Huckabee’s brand of populism isn’t nearly as strident (read lunatic) as Buchanan’s. But to describe it as watery doesn’t do it justice. Huckabee’s posture on matters of taxing, trading, and even faith represent something shrewder: Buchananism minus the bombast, the paranoia, the out-front efforts to court the clenched-fist-and-camouflage crowd. And in this regard, the message and the messenger are the same—which could well make them more formidable, and no less disconcerting, than Buchanan and his gospel were in 1996.

For all the differences in tone and temperament between Huckabee and Buchanan, the likenesses are striking, starting with their performance skills. Buchanan was an oratorical master, forever honing his laugh lines, massaging his cadences. Huckabee, a Baptist minister who enacted his first radio broadcast at age 11, employs a folksier style, but one no less effective. On topics of faith, he readily hits that dog-whistle pitch only Evangelicals can hear. And on other matters, he is equally adroit. “I’m a conservative,” he likes to say, “but I’m not mad at anybody”—a genius line, at once pithy and pointed. His sharp sense of humor is a rare asset in a race packed with stiffs and sourpusses. When a cell phone trilled during one of his speeches this year in Iowa, Huckabee quipped, without missing a beat, “If that’s Dick Cheney wanting me to go on a duck hunt, tell him I’m not doing it.”

Huckabee’s rhetorical mojo is a major reason for his status as a darling of the press. And it has allowed him, as it did Buchanan, to wage a guerrilla campaign, living off free media and thus compensating for his woeful lack of cash. Being perpetually broke is a substantial disadvantage in a presidential race. Duh. But it confers (or compels) certain freedoms that can actually benefit a candidate: the freedom from overweening staff, from poll-driven paralysis, and, crucially, from expectations. Indeed, as was the case with the rise of Buchanan, the sheer lightning-strike quality of the Huckabee ascendance is the source of its power.

Today, of course, Huckabee’s under-the-radarness is a thing of the past. For the past two weeks, he has been subjected to skin-blanching levels of exposure—and hair-raising scrutiny. What’s come out has not been pretty. That Huckabee asserted in 1992 that people with AIDS should be quarantined. That, as governor of Arkansas, he pushed for clemency on behalf of a convicted serial rapist who would commit the same crime, plus murder, after being released early from prison. That he received (indeed, solicited) at least $150,000 in gifts from constituents.

And yet Huckabee’s poll numbers, which put him first in Iowa and a close second to Rudy Giuliani nationally, have continued their near-vertical climb unabated. In the Hawkeye State, that climb began (though few noticed it) in August, when Huckabee finished second to Romney in the Republican straw poll. As Buchanan himself points out to me, the effect was to force Sam Brownback out of the race and give Huckabee a chance to consolidate the state’s sizable religious-right voting bloc. And this he has done in spades: Huckabee is now the overwhelming choice of born-again Christians and weekly churchgoers in Iowa.

For many of these voters, his views on AIDS and homosexuality (“an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle”), not to mention his belief in creationism, aren’t seen as faux pas but badges of honor—and the dismay they provoke in saner quarters as cause to rally around him.

Being the premier holy roller in the race may be enough to capture Iowa for Huckabee. But in the states that follow, more will be required—which brings us to his economic populism. Unlike Buchanan, who called for steep tariffs on Japanese and Chinese goods (and would retort, if you called him a protectionist, “Yeah, and so were all four of the presidents up on Mount Rushmore”), Huckabee doesn’t embrace any proposals so nakedly mercantilist. Nor has he called, as Buchanan did, for a five-year freeze on legal immigration. “He hasn’t studied these issues like I did,” Buchanan says. “He’s receptive to them, he pays lip service to them, but he isn’t all the way there.”

But Huckabee does reject the concept of free trade in favor of “fair trade.” He says that the next president must “make it clear that we’re not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas.” He denounces “immoral” CEO salaries and bemoans the GOP’s transformation into “a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street,” whereas he sees himself as “the candidate of Main Street.” His new immigration plan is so draconian that it earned the endorsement of a founder of the quasi-vigilante border-patrol outfit the Minutemen Project. And his position on health care—“Either give every American the same kind of health care that Congress has or make Congress have the same kind of health that every American has”—sounds less like Buchanan than, well, John Edwards.

In truth, Huckabee’s actual economic program is staggeringly vague. And what isn’t vague (his plan to demolish the IRS and replace all federal taxes with a national sales tax, for instance) amounts to economic quackery. But beyond that, there is an overriding political objection to the merger of populism with Christianism that Huckabee aims to pull off: Buchanan’s campaigns may have been a gas, but he also, um, lost.

On countless levels, however, 2008 is aeons away from 1996, let alone 1992. In each of his races, Buchanan was trying to topple a genuine, formidable front-runner: a sitting president, a Senate majority leader. But today it’s evident that, after a year of frantic campaigning, no such creature exists; indeed, Huckabee’s leap into the top tier is itself vivid proof of the point. The GOP too is a very different beast from what it was in the nineties: no longer the majority party in Congress, its foundations crumbling, its leadership dazed, confused, and helpless. When I recently asked a senior party operative if the Republican Establishment could block Huckabee from the nomination, he replied, with a tiny chuckle, “What Republican Establishment?”

More to the point, the conditions on the ground are arguably more conducive to populism now than in Pitchfork Pat’s heyday. In 1996, after all, the economy was in the midst of a historic boom, one that was on the verge of kicking into overdrive. Today, the situation is the reverse: Recession looms, the Dow sags, the housing and credit markets buckle. The economy has elbowed aside Iraq as the central locus of voter anxiety.

Hence the reason why the rise of Huckabee is causing so much consternation, even panic, among his fellow wannabe nominees. Though nobody sober believes that, even if he emerges triumphant in Iowa, Huckabee can win New Hampshire, his prospects in the next two contests (Michigan and South Carolina) are considerably better. Both are states whose industrial bases have been ravaged by foreign competition. Both have seen their property markets hammered by the credit crunch and the recent wave of foreclosures. And at least in South Carolina, the state that is often the sine qua non for securing the GOP nomination, the Evangelical vote is nearly as significant as it is in Iowa. If Huckabee wins there—and he currently leads—his momentum could prove unstoppable.

There are, naturally, a raft of reasons to doubt this scenario. Huckabee’s lack of money might trip him up on Tsunami Tuesday, February 5. Or Romney, with his advantages in dollars and organizational strength, might pull it together and become the Republican comeback kid in Iowa. What’s clear is that much is at stake. “The cause of economic nationalism is coming,” Buchanan concludes. “If the Republican Party doesn’t move toward it, it’s going to be destroyed.”