"When they're kicking you in the rear, it's just proving you're still out front."
Those are the words of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has emerged from relative obscurity to become a legitimate contender for the GOP presidential nomination - and a target of his rivals.
Last Wednesday, Huckabee’s performance in the Republican debate garnered strong reviews. A new Des Moines Register poll in Iowa, home of the influential Jan. 3 caucuses, shows the likeable Baptist minister leading the field.
But success means scrutiny. The anti-tax Club for Growth has been hammering Huckabee over his record on taxes as governor; the Associated Press has spotlighted the 16 ethics complaints filed against him in Arkansas, five of which were found to be violations; his rivals for the GOP nomination have attacked him over his past support for college scholarships for children of illegal immigrants.
And then there's the story of Wayne DuMond.
In 1985, DuMond was convicted of the rape of a 17-year-old girl with a connection to then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton: She was the governor's distant cousin and the daughter of a major campaign contributor.
As Clinton rose to national prominence, the case came to the attention of his critics. Journalists and talk show hosts questioned the victim's story and suggested that DuMond had been railroaded by the former governor. Steve Dunleavy, a New York Post columnist, took up the case as a cause, calling DuMond’s conviction "a travesty of justice."
The story also came with a tabloid-ready twist: DuMond said that while awaiting trial, masked men broke into his house and castrated him. Though there were doubts about the story, it engendered sympathy for DuMond among Clinton foes.
DuMond's sentence had been set at life in prison, plus 20 years. In 1992, Clinton's successor in the Arkansas governor's mansion, Jim Guy Tucker, reduced that sentence to 39 years, making DuMond eligible for parole.
When Huckabee became governor in 1996, he expressed doubts about DuMond's guilt and said he was considering commuting his sentence to time served. After the victim and her supporters protested, Huckabee decided against commutation. But in 1997, according to the Kansas City Star, Huckabee wrote a letter to DuMond saying "my desire is that you be released from prison." Less than a year later, DuMond was granted parole.
Huckabee's office denied that the governor played a role in the parole board's decision, but there was evidence (exhaustively detailed here) to contradict that claim.
Charles Chastain, a Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who was on the parole board at the time, told CBSNews.com the governor met with the board to argue on DuMond’s behalf.
"He thought DuMond had gotten a raw deal," said Chastain, who calls himself neutral towards Huckabee. "He said he'd been born on the wrong side of the tracks and hadn't been treated all that fairly."
"I don't think the governor quite understood about parole proceedings," added Chastain. "I thought of the parole board as a quasi-judicial body that wouldn't be lobbied or otherwise interfered with by anyone outside of it, so I was a little bit surprised by it."
After the meeting, Chastain said, a number of the board members "switched their vote" from the previous year, and DuMond was paroled.
Joe Carter, director of research for the Huckabee campaign, insists that Huckabee did not seek to pressure the parole board. "If it was such an important issue for him, he would have commuted his sentence," Carter told CBSNews.com.
DuMond's release was delayed because a number of states did not want to take him in, but he left prison in 1999 and ended up in Missouri. Not long after he arrived, he was arrested again - this time for sexually assaulting and murdering a woman named Carol Sue Shields. DuMond was also the leading suspect in the rape and murder of another woman. He was convicted of murdering Shields and died in prison in 2005.
In a statement, Huckabee Press Secretary Alice Stewart told CBSNews.com that Huckabee “had no influence regarding the parole board's decision to release Wayne Dumond.”
“Governor Huckabee had no authority to grant parole to Wayne Dumond or anyone else -- governors don’t have that authority in the parole process,” she said.
According to Arkansas Times editor Max Brantley, who has tangled repeatedly with Huckabee over the years, the governor's influence clearly played a role in DuMond's release from prison.
"In the end, he took a series of actions that can be interpreted only one way: That he was an advocate for Wayne DuMond," said Brantley. "And it was bad judgment. And he's never been willing to take responsibility for it."
"It's an unfortunate incident," said Carter, Huckabee's director of research, of the DuMond case. "He is devastated by what happened, but he felt he did no wrongful action."
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