(CNSNews.com) - As former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee surges in polls against other Republicans seeking the 2008 presidential nomination, fiscal conservatives are taking a closer look at his record and expressing concerns about his approach to taxes and other economic issues.
Huckabee campaigns on having cut taxes 94 times during his 10-year tenure as governor. But Nachama Soloveichik, communications director for the conservative Club for Growth, said his record includes only two "modest" tax cuts.
"The truth is, he did implement two modest tax cuts which the Club for Growth gives him credit for," Soloveichik told Cybercast News Service. "But the majority of his tax cuts were little tweaks and changes to the tax code, like exempting purchases of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra tickets from the sales tax. That doesn't really count as a massive tax cut."
The Club for Growth has produced ads questioning Huckabee's record, calling him a tax hiker more liberal than former President Bill Clinton, who was also governor of Arkansas.
The Arkansas Journal newspaper also released footage of a speech Huckabee delivered before the Arkansas legislature in May 2003, during which he mentioned several proposed tax increases, concluding that "others have suggested a hybrid that would collect some monies from any one or a combination of those various ideas, and if that's the plan that the House and Senate agree upon, then you will have nothing but my profound thanks."
Huckabee responded to the ads in an interview with ABC's "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. "If you play that whole speech, what you would see is that the context was we were days away from a budget showdown that would have closed the government in Arkansas," he said.
"And the context of the speech was you want a surcharge, you want a sales tax, okay, but we've got to have a budget, people," Huckabee added. "We've got to come up with a way to keep state government working."
"There's nothing that's taken out of context," Soloveichik said. "The Club for Growth thinks that an executive's first resort should be cutting spending, not 'let's raise any tax we can think of.' That clip is emblematic of Mike Huckabee's entire 10-year tenure in which his first resort was: raise taxes."
Soloveichik said that "lots of states go through tough times, but it's especially during those tough times when governors need to cut spending, cut government waste, and Mike Huckabee was more inclined to raise taxes than he was to cut the size of government."
But she said the group welcomes change that so often occurs in candidates on the campaign trail: "The Club for Growth welcomes what people call converts. The more the merrier."
"The problem is that Mike Huckabee, while even though he signed the no-tax pledge and he talks about the Fair Tax, isn't really demonstrating that he's changed," said Soloveichik.
"He embraces and defends all of his tax hikes and he continues to promote, besides the issue of taxes, large big-government programs," Soloveichik said, referring to Huckabee's support for a national smoking ban, federal funding of arts and music curriculum, the minimum wage increase, and his opposition to school choice.
Yet other fiscal conservatives are more confident that Huckabee's turnaround is genuine. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Cybercast News Service that Huckabee "has a troubled history of tolerating tax increases and spending increases in the past, but we are very much in favor of people learning from the past and moving forward."
Norquist said Huckabee faced "an overwhelmingly [Democratic] legislature," which likely prompted his support for tax increases. "On the other hand, I don't think one should raise taxes," he said.
"It would have been better to have said, 'Here's a list of assets the state can sell. Here's a list of things we could do,' and if the Democrats want to shut down the government because we won't raise taxes, have that fight," Norquist added.
Norquist said he would prefer that Huckabee not campaign in defense of his support for tax increases, instead suggesting the former governor admit, "'We did raise taxes and we did raise spending and I wish we hadn't, and in the future we won't.'"
Norquist praised Huckabee for signing on to an ATR pledge candidates are asked to make that would commit them to opposing tax increases.
"Huckabee did not make that commitment when he was [running for] governor, and so he didn't break it," Norquist said. "So, looking forward, the governor has said and committed that he will veto and vote against any tax increase and that's very important."
Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) is one of two Republican hopefuls to not sign the pledge. He also declined to sign the pledge when running for Senate. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who signed the pledge during his 2000 presidential campaign, has declined to do so in the 2008 campaign.
Norquist said Huckabee would have to convince fiscally conservative voters that his change is genuine, comparing Huckabee's challenges to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's challenge of convincing socially conservative voters that his switch from being pro-abortion to being pro-life is genuine.
"If Romney can make the case that he has become pro-life and that that's a credible shift, then he's stronger," Norquist said. "If Huckabee can make the case that his days of tax- and-spending increases are behind him, then he'll be a strong candidate."
"He is making the case that he will never raise taxes and is supporting a series of tax cuts and in fact radical - the going to a flat rate tax through the retail sales tax - so he's making that case right now," Norquist said. He added that "voters will have to make their own decisions" as to whether or not Huckabee is convincing.
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