WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s rise to prominence in the Republican presidential field is worrying some business groups that question his support for free trade and want more details about his economic plans.
Huckabee, who trailed badly in the polls several months ago, trounced rivals in Iowa’s first-in-the-country presidential nominating contest on Thursday.
While Huckabee’s campaign Web site provides few details of his views on trade, some of his public statements “sound awfully protectionist,” said Nachama Soloveichik, a spokeswoman for Club for Growth, a pro-business advocacy group.
“It’s amazing someone is now considered a first-tier candidate, but we know so little about his proposals,” Soloveichik said.
The Club for Growth, which Huckabee has described as the “Club for Greed,” issued a statement after the Iowa caucus urging voters in next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary “to reject Mike Huckabee and his big-government policies.”
Huckabee, a Baptist minister, bounded past former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Iowa Republican caucus with a message that mixed social conservatism with economic populism. Romney had outspent Huckabee in Iowa by a 20-to-1 margin and led the polls there for months until a late Huckabee surge.
I don’t want to see our food come from China, our oil come from Saudi Arabia and our manufacturing come from Europe and Asia,” the Economist magazine quoted Huckabee as saying on the campaign trail.
Huckabee’s Web site says he supports free trade as long as it is fair. It also says globalization can be a “blessing” for consumers by allowing them to buy cheaper goods, but the United States needs to fight foreign trade practices that cost American jobs.
Huckabee’s campaign did not respond to an e-mail request on Friday for more information.
Romney, who finished second in Iowa, has taken a more emphatically pro-trade stance by calling for renewal of White House fast-track trade negotiating authority to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement and other U.S. free-trade pacts into the world’s largest free-trade zone.
Doug Goudie, director of International Trade Policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, agreed Huckabee needed to spell out his views on trade more clearly.
Goudie also took some comfort from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s decisive victory in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses.
While all the top Democrats have distanced themselves from free trade, Obama appears to be “a little more open” to it than former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who finished second and third in Iowa, Goudie said.
Still, all three Democrats have called for renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is unpopular with many labor groups, which blame it for job losses.
Those calls — and Huckabee’s own criticisms — show how much the U.S. political landscape has shifted against free trade in recent years, said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
Of all the major candidates, only Edwards is actually likely to reverse direction on U.S. trade policy by pursuing a more protectionist stance, said Gary Hufbauer, a trade scholar at the Institute for International Economics.
Huckabee, if elected, would probably follow traditional Republican practices on trade, although it could take a back seat to foreign policy concerns, Hufbauer said.
In that context, he might propose “some kind of free-trade agreement with Japan, but the big emphasis would be to keep China from dominating all of Asia,” he said.
Editing by Peter Cooney