Image: Huckabee
Eric Thayer  /  Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee speaks at a campaign event at the Jordan Creek Town Center December 19, 2007 in West Des Moines, Iowa.
updated 12/20/2007 10:10:12 AM ET 2007-12-20T15:10:12

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee can find plenty of parallels between his native Arkansas and Iowa when it comes to methamphetamine: Both are small states using stricter laws to battle increased use of the drug.

But GOP rivals Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson are tagging Huckabee as soft on crime because of a 2005 Arkansas law he signed as governor that gave some meth offenders more credit for good behavior. Instead of serving 70 percent of their sentences, they'd have to serve at least half if they behaved.

"Mike Huckabee's solution? Early releases for meth dealers," Thompson's campaign proclaimed.

Opponents also point to Huckabee's record of pardons and commutations: He had a hand in twice as many as his three predecessors combined, granting 1,033 pardons and commutations in his 10 1/2 years in office. The acts of clemency benefited the stepson of a staff member, murderers who worked at the governor's mansion, a rock star and inmates who received good words from their pastors.

He answered critics of his record on methamphetamine Thursday, singling out Romney in particular.

Sentences "for meth dealers in my state are more than twice as harsh as they were in his state," Huckabee told an audience gathered in a hotel conference room in Marshalltown, Iowa. "When people get desperate, they say desperate things, and sometimes dishonest things."

Huckabee's rivals are struggling to overtake his campaign, which is surging nationally and in Iowa, where caucuses open the presidential nominating season on Jan. 3.

Iowa, like many states, also has had to grapple with methamphetamine abuse.

Earlier this year, the Drug Enforcement Administration called meth the principal drug of concern in Iowa. Arkansas and Iowa both have enacted measures restricting access to the principal ingredients in methamphetamine.

Both states have seen some progress with the new laws. Arkansas Children's Hospital last year said it saw a 63 percent drop in patients admitted with burns related to methamphetamine production since the state adopted a law, also in 2005, to control the sale of drugs containing pseudoephedrine.

In Iowa last year, there were 345 methamphetamine lab incidents, a steep drop from the 1,500 reported in 2004, according to the governor's drug control policy office. So far this year, 164 lab incidents have been reported.

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"It's rare that you run into someone who isn't affected directly or indirectly by it," said Gary Kendell, director of the Iowa governor's drug control office. "We're a small enough state and it's a large enough problem that I think a person who doesn't pay attention to it would be an exception."

Huckabee's campaign has defended his actions and noted that the law did not affect sentences of meth offenders convicted before it took effect.

Campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart said Huckabee believes "the ultimate purpose of the criminal justice system — beyond establishing guilt and responsibility — is not to seek mere punishment but to prevent future crime."

Back home, Huckabee has been supported by Democratic state lawmakers and prosecutors who say the 2005 legislation on meth sentences was necessary to keep the state's prison population under control.

State Sen. Jim Luker, who sponsored the measure, said he didn't remember Huckabee playing a major role in lobbying for its passage. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who then served as the state's attorney general, also supported the bill.

The state Legislature passed the bill after it won backing from the state prosecutors association and as lawmakers approved a series of measures to address methamphetamine use. Another bill Huckabee signed that year required pharmacists to keep pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient for manufacturing meth, behind the counter.

The sentencing proposal, however, faced opposition from lawmakers who said it would do little to address the state's packed prisons.

"I just thought it sent a bad message when we were fighting meth to reduce sentences like that," said former state Rep. Timothy Hutchinson, an ex-prosecutor who opposed the sentence reduction.

Hutchinson, a Republican who has given money to Huckabee's presidential campaign, said he didn't think Huckabee's record on methamphetamine should be viewed by that bill alone.

"I just don't think it's fair to define a person by one bill, especially one I don't remember him ever lobbying for," Hutchinson said.

The state's prison chief backed the 2005 proposal and said it would help ease the crowding of Arkansas' penal system. Arkansas Department of Correction spokeswoman Dina Tyler said so far no meth offenders have been released early under the new law.

Of the state's roughly 14,300 inmates, only 126 have been sentenced under the new guidelines, Tyler said.

She said reduced sentences are only in exchange for good behavior and are not a "free pass" out of jail.

"If they act like clowns or fools, they won't get out early," Tyler said.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, the state chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, faced similar criticism last year from Republicans about the bill. McDaniel, a legislator in 2005, voted for the reduced sentences measure and spoke in favor of it on the House floor.

Luker dismissed the criticism of Huckabee.

"There are a lot of things to criticize Mike Huckabee for, but this isn't one of them," Luker said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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