Multiple corporate conferences dominated the lobby of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel yesterday, and at first glance, one never would’ve guessed that the Republican candidate who had stormed to victory in the Iowa caucuses was in the house. I found the Terrace Room, where Mike Huckabee was addressing the small yet powerful group that is the Bay Area social conservative set, by following the screams of a Code Pink antiwar protester (dressed sharply in a business suit to match the well-healed crowd) being dragged out. As her cries of “Out of Iraq now!” faded, Huckabee turned back to the crowd and remarked that the beauty of America is that the protester was not going to be taken out back and shot. Laughter ensued: The audience might have been small, but it was boisterous enough at that point (and at other times) to make up for the empty seats at the fringes of the room.
After a cordial Q&A with his supporters, Huckabee made his way into the adjoining Vanderbilt room, where local media were decidedly less friendly. They focused on two issues about which most San Franciscans strongly disagree with Huckabee: gay rights and immigration. And for the occasion, the ex-Governor of Arkansas toned down his usually fiery religious rhetoric.
Asked if he had spoken to the mother of Ryan White, the young AIDS victim who was expelled from school at the beginning of the epidemic and around that time that Huckabee said that HIV/AIDS patients should be quarantined, he said that they recently had a very long phone conversation with Ms. White-Ginder. When the questions turned to gay rights, he came out strongly against firing someone in a government position based on sexual orientation (yet left the door open for the possibility of firing a gay church employee). These answers were obviously tailored to the assembled group, and this was probably the first time he has dusted them off and trotted them out in public.
When it came to immigration, though, Huckabee seemed less willing to play to the crowd, despite the fact that he was in California, where the economy is kept afloat largely by the contributions of undocumented workers in the state’s massive agricultural industry. Faced with a question on how he reconciles his position on immigration with the fact that California would be crippled without immigrants, both documented and undocumented, he answered that the short term contributions of illegal immigrants to the economy were negated by the amount of money spent on them in the form of social services, specifically Medicaid, food assistance programs, and federal aid to schools. (The study that anti-immigrant conservatives cite to support this argument is, as Business Week points out, pretty problematic. It doesn’t take into account the fact that “illegal households” often include American-born children; doesn’t account for the fact that illegal immigrants pay payroll taxes that bankroll Social Security and Medicare, both programs that they are ineligible for; and doesn’t address this study that shows that immigration in fact increases the wages of Californians across the board.)
Although Huckabee downplayed his usual social conservative zeal for the occasion, he didn’t miss an opportunity to out-Reagan his competitors. Asked if it bothered him that he was no longer deemed a front-runner, he responded that “I’ve never been the pick of the establishment. I probably never will be. That’s OK, Ronald Reagan wasn’t either.”