By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
DES MOINES, Dec. 3 -- Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, for months cast as a "second-tier" candidate, now finds himself with another label he is not eager to have: "front-runner."
With a Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend showing him topping the GOP presidential field, Huckabee returned to Iowa Monday for his first visit as the front-runner in the state, sharing his mix of homespun jokes and socially conservative views on talk radio, in half a dozen television interviews, and in speeches at an energy plant and a financial services company in the Des Moines area.
The one thing he did not do: attend a traditional campaign town hall meeting or rally, as his top rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has done for months. Unable to raise enough money earlier in the year to run a traditional campaign, Huckabee is employing an unprecedented and risky strategy to win the caucuses here: a campaign with almost no on-the-ground operation.
Without the money to hire field organizers around the state to ensure that voters will turn out, the campaign is instead relying on a network of pastors, parents who home-school their children, and other Christian conservatives. Monday night, he appeared at a closed-door meeting with Iowa pastors that was organized in part by some of his conservative religious backers.
Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, was introduced by Tim LaHaye, a conservative Christian activist. LaHaye is author of the "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic novels highly popular among Christian conservatives, who make up more than a third of Iowa GOP caucus-goers. While LaHaye has not officially endorsed Huckabee, he and his wife are listed on the program of events sponsored by a group of pastors, and Huckabee has been the only candidate invited to these forums.
As he has risen in the polls, rivals are increasingly attacking his record as governor. How effectively he can respond remains an open question, as he has little money to flood the airwaves here with ads. And because Huckabee has a staff of only about a dozen in the state -- a fraction of the size of Romney's operation -- reporters frequently complain that they cannot get his increasingly overwhelmed spokesmen to return calls.
Asked whether Huckabee could win, Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said "maybe," and was quick to tick off the challenges he faces. "He doesn't have nearly the people or the staff to deliver the votes," said Scheffler, who has not endorsed a candidate.
As Huckabee made stops Monday, it was clear that while he has momentum, voters are also hearing the attacks on him. At a speech at Principal Financial Group in downtown Des Moines, a man asked Huckabee if he was a "tax raiser" and "soft on immigration." Huckabee backed some tax increases while in Arkansas and supported a bill that would have allowed the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, something Romney and other GOP candidates have lambasted.
He faced questions about taxes throughout the day, and he noted frequently that a conservative named Ronald Reagan had supported tax increases both as governor of California and later as president. "Does anyone in the Republican Party call Ronald Reagan a liberal?" Huckabee said.
Huckabee is no longer considered a long-shot candidate running a quixotic campaign. Even as he sought to lower expectations, saying he is "running second" and needs only to finish in the top three, he was introduced at each event as either the "front-runner" or the "leading candidate" among Republicans.
After the Iowa poll showed that Republican voters like him but found him much less "presidential" and "electable" than Romney, Huckabee sought to build his foreign policy credentials, meeting with a group of retired generals who are in Des Moines to urge the 2008 candidates to commit to opposing torture. After the meeting, Huckabee joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in declaring his opposition to the interrogation procedure known as "waterboarding," and said he would support closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a contrast with the other leading Republicans.
Huckabee also argues that the model he has employed here, with an emphasis on the candidate's message and personal appeal, not only can win here but also propel him toward the nomination.
"We're running second in a state where we don't have any structure," he said, attempting to suggest that Romney is still ahead. "Where we don't have offices or paid staff, we have something better: We have an army of ordinary people."
As he stumped in New Hampshire last weekend, some of those who saw him said they were proud that a candidate such as Huckabee can come back.
"That's what the New Hampshire primary is all about. Someone seen as a second-tier candidate a couple of weeks ago turns it on," said Robert Boyce, a state senator in the Granite State who is leaning toward Huckabee.
Before he can head to New Hampshire and South Carolina, though, Huckabee needs to a strong showing in Iowa.
"We can't build the staff, we don't have the resources," said Bob Vander Plaats, Huckabee's Iowa chairman. "It will be a great case study of the Iowa caucus. You have a candidate with a great staff, a lot of paid staff . . . versus a candidate with a great message, limited staff and relying on a lot of volunteers to carry his water on caucus night."
Staff writer Alec MacGillis in New Hampshire contributed to this report.