Music to His Ears

Huckabee stumps in Pella, Iowa, greeting Willa Branderhorst, left, and other residents.
Huckabee stumps in Pella, Iowa, greeting Willa Branderhorst, left, and other residents. (Photos By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007

DES MOINES

Sarah Huckabee has known her father, Mike, as many things. When she was little, he was the man whose wallet she could dig into with any sentence that began "Daddy, I need . . . ." Later, he was the man whose ascent to the Arkansas governor's office ripped her away from her friends and familiar surroundings the summer before she entered high school. Now, as his national field director, she's known him as a Republican Party candidate for president and charismatic speaker. But, she says, she's never known him as "hip."

"We'd have to work on some of his clothing options before I'd say that," the 25-year-old Huckabee says during lunch Wednesday at a brew pub here where her father -- sporting a prep-school ensemble of a blue-striped oxford shirt and blue blazer -- eats with a local newspaper columnist.

But hip is precisely what Huckabee has become in the weeks since he placed second in the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 11. Indeed, since walking into the media filing room that night and being swarmed by the media as if he were -- these are his words -- "Britney Spears being released from prison," Huckabee has been seen as the cuddly antidote to what has been an awfully tough-talking Republican field. He's the affable, compassionate, good guy and rock-and-roll evangelical who plays guitar and wants to hang with the Rolling Stones.

It's hard to think of a candidate in recent political history who felt such a bounce and media hug after a second-place finish in a nonbinding contest where three of the top-tier candidates or almost-candidates -- John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- didn't bother to show. But man, is he working it.

"Oh, gosh," Huckabee says when asked to recall the media appearances he's done since his surprise showing at the straw poll. "I did Colbert, Maher. I did Fox News Sunday. 'Face the Nation.' I can't even remember them all. It's just a blur." (Bill Maher, who had Huckabee on his HBO program on Friday, the candidate's 52nd birthday, ended his interview with the former governor by saying, "Rudy Giuliani scares the hell out of me, so I hope you win.")

"I'd like to think the people of the country are looking for somebody that's not running because he's mad and angry," Huckabee says in an interview here. "My two strongest critics are the extreme right and the extreme left, both of whom say the same things about me. It's not unlike 'The Manchurian Candidate' -- the original, which I think was better. The extreme right and extreme left are so extreme that they join together at the other side of the world. That's really what that movie was about. At some point, extremism almost loses distinction."

Even those who think little of his political accomplishments can see Huckabee's appeal. Randy Thompson, whose advertising and consulting group has long aligned itself with the Democratic Party establishment in the former governor's home state, can spend 15 minutes bashing Huckabee's decade as governor, only to go soft.

"Everyone who's spent time with him whether they thought he was the best governor in the history of Arkansas or the absolute worst can agree that he's a nice man," Thompson says. "I think there's a certain freshness to that. That's what the people supporting him in Iowa saw."

Now, with the help of the national media, that's what the rest of America has begun to see. Huckabee's rare combination of down-home folksiness, compassion and ability to intelligently articulate conservative views has helped his transformation from former Baptist minister to the avatar of the post-Jerry Falwell evangelical movement. Once ridiculed for holding his hand up during a debate when asked which candidates didn't believe in evolution, he's risen above the label of religious zealot into, well, a conservative whom liberals such as Maher kind of like.

Though Huckabee's national poll numbers currently linger at single digits, political analyst Charlie Cook calls him a candidate with "good crossover appeal to social conservatives and more secular Republicans."

"The question to me is, will he get the resources?" Cook says. "Will he be able to take advantage of the vacuum that's out there? Nobody's really taken off, but will Huckabee be able to find the resources? I just don't have the answer to that."


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