Music to His Ears
Mike Huckabee Hit a Chord in Iowa and Is Off and Running

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."

For now, what Huckabee can do is explain his faith-based views.

"The pro-life movement has often been castigated for its focus on the child in the womb, and once the child got out of the womb, he was on his own," Huckabee says. "My point is, for us to show true credibility, we must show as much compassion for the child sleeping under the bridge or in the back seat of the car as we do for the one in the womb.

"That's what pro-life really means," he continues. "It is really about understanding the value of each individual life as having intrinsic worth. So whether that life is in the womb or is an 89-year-old invalid in long-term care, what we value is the individual and respect the dignity and value of that person."

Racing between events, Huckabee is speaking in the back of the Dodge belonging to his Iowa campaign manager, Eric Woolson, on his first trip here since his now legendary second-place finish to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the straw poll. He's returned very much a man on the cusp of something that could lead to the higher ground or a knee-tearing tumble. At this moment, Huckabee can rise into the tournament's top tier and have it out in an extended battle with Giuliani and Romney and Thompson, or fall back to a quiet life spent writing books and promoting nutrition in a post-political life.

"In every realm, from fundraising to media attention to endorsements from key leaders in early states to bloggers, everything has changed," Huckabee says. "It's also brought a new level of scrutiny. The more visible you are, the more of a target you become. It's a form of flattery to be attacked. Hunters never go out and put a bullet in a dead animal. They only put the crosshairs on a trophy they want to put down. The fact someone's taking a shot at me is a compliment."

He certainly didn't win over many in the Republican base by suggesting that the Clintons deserved credit for holding their marriage together after, well, you know. Nor have fiscal conservatives warmed to his idea of overhauling the tax system with a "fair tax," which includes eliminating all federal and corporate income taxes as well as personal income taxes, capital gains and death taxes and taxes on savings, but replace them with a federal retail sales tax.

It's hard to find much venom at a Pizza Ranch in Pella, where he addressed an older crowd of around 60 people Wednesday morning. He shows no hesitation in attacking the nation's two most powerful streets -- Wall Street and K Street -- or assailing the United States' reliance on the Saudi royal family for oil. Evoking Jack Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, he calls for a plan to create a nation run exclusively on home-grown, environmentally friendly resources in 10 years. Naturally, he sells the tax plan and tells of an impoverished youth.

The crowd loves his jokes. (Sample: "There are several things you'll never hear an Arkansan say. One of them is, 'Honey, I don't think duct tape will fix that.' Another one is 'No, we don't need another dog.' "

"I'm so tired of thinking our goal is to beat Democrats," Huckabee says of his party. "No. Our goal is to lift up America. And if we lift up America, people will elect us. . . . If we don't lift up America and the opportunities, then we shouldn't get elected. This isn't about beating Democrats. This is about having better ideas."

Before Huckabee's speech, 84-year-old Bill Schimmel, retired from the Pella window manufacturing company here, says: "He's a man after my own liking. He's pro-family and I think he's against abortion. As for a marriage, he's for a man and a woman, right?"

Afterward, Stephanie Visser, a 42-year-old mother of three, says: "I like his values. I like his tax plan. It makes sense to me. I haven't heard him say different things to different groups."

That consistency applies to Huckabee's approach to the media, as well. Even with all the marquee appearances, Huckabee works tiny media outlets from the back of the car, with Woolson tossing his cellphone so Huckabee can field interviews. Wednesday, he did three sit-down radio interviews, chatted on air with two local television affiliate reporters and had lunch with a newspaper columnist before catching an afternoon flight home. He studiously avoided piling on Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) about his arrest, saying, "He's got a lot of explaining to do."

Whether such focus on Huckabee will continue after Labor Day, when the expensive turbines of the more well-heeled candidates begin moving again, remains to be seen. Along will come Thompson to shop his own folksy presidential wisdom to Republican voters. All the other guy from Hope, Ark., can do for the moment is build on his pseudo-victory, remaining media-friendly and jocular for curious event-attendees trying to gauge what this guy's all about. In other words, he's gonna milk the straw poll for quite some time.

"The people saying, 'He can't do it, he can't do it,' quit after that Saturday night," Huckabee says. "And that's what's changed. People were always very kind about my message. Even national reporters were saying, 'Why isn't he catching on?' People just didn't think I could win and then thought maybe I can."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company