WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee ripped the Bush administration's war against terrorism Friday, delivering a bold and potentially risky speech that could establish the former Arkansas governor as the maverick among top Republican candidates and test his party's loyalty to President Bush.
"This administration's bunker mentality has been counterproductive both at home and abroad," Huckabee said in opening a broad indictment of Bush's style and policy.
The speech came after several top Republican candidates started distancing themselves from Bush, vowing change on such issues as illegal immigration and federal spending even as they endorsed Bush's foreign policy.
By going much further than his rivals have in attacking Bush, Huckabee could draw attention to a campaign that's inched up in polls in recent months but still lacks the money and organization that can compete head-on with better-known, better-financed candidates such as Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson.
In first-to-vote Iowa, for example, an average of four recent polls put Huckabee fourth among Republican candidates with 10.3 percent, ahead of John McCain and within five points of Giuliani and Thompson, but far behind front-runner Romney, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
His strong stand also could give him the kind of maverick image that McCain courted in 2000, which appeals to independent voters in states such as New Hampshire, where they can vote in the Republican primary.
But it also could turn off the majority of Republicans who still like Bush.
"He's trying to carve out a responsible alternative to the administration's foreign policy," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "But I don't know that it will do him any good in the Republican Party. While there is a lot of grumbling in the Republican Party about Bush, they're still pretty loyal."
On one hotly debated issue, Huckabee endorsed Bush's surge of troops into Iraq, urging more time for that to work and criticizing Democratic proposals to get troops out as an invitation to chaos.
But beyond that, he differed with Bush across the map, using language more often heard from Democrats. He accused the administration of shunning allies and turning world sentiment against the United States.
"They've done a poor job of communicating and consulting countries much as they have, frankly, the American people," Huckabee told about 150 people at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank in Washington. "Our prestige in the world has been marred."
On Iran, he said Bush blew a chance to improve relations right after the 2001 terrorist attacks and that the United States should be talking to Iran today.
"When we first invaded Afghanistan, Iran helped, especially in dealings with their ally, the Northern Alliance," he said. "They wanted to join us in fighting al Qaida. ...The CIA and State Department supported a partnership. Some in the White House and beyond did not. And when President Bush included Iran in the axis of evil, everything went downhill pretty fast."
Even with today's sour relations, he said the United States should talk to Iran and use the promise of better relations and increased trade as well as the threat of economic isolation to persuade the country to abandon its nuclear program.
"The administration has quite properly said it will not take the military option off the table. But if we don't put some other options on the table, eventually the military option becomes the only viable one. Right now we're proceeding down only one track," he said.
He all but echoed Democrat Barack Obama in opening the door to strike al Qaida in Pakistan even without that government's approval, saying the Bush administration has a "muddle of policy" there.
He questioned whether Bush was in charge at a critical point in the hunt for al Qaida. He said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called off a 2005 raid into Pakistan to nab Osama bin Laden's top deputy because the mission had grown just large enough that he thought it would need the Pakistan government's approval.
"Why did Rumsfeld call it off and not President Bush? Did the president even know about it? ...When I'm president, I will make the final call on such action, not my secretary of defense."
ON THE WEB
Video and audio of Huckabee's speech.
Huckabee's campaign Web site.