Stand-Up Guy

By Dana Milbank
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Analysts are puzzling over Mike Huckabee's sudden rise to the top of the Republican presidential polls: Is it because religious conservatives find Rudy Giuliani too liberal? Mitt Romney too Mormon?

Maybe it's just because Huckabee is a funny guy.

The former Arkansas governor is so liberal with the one-liners that he sounds like Robin Williams campaigning for president in last year's movie "Man of the Year."

A questioner at Des Moines University in Iowa asks: Why do Republicans brand Democrats' health-care plans "socialized medicine"?

"Because we want to win," Huckabee answers without a pause.

Was he expecting to be the target of rivals' attacks during the presidential debate? "We had a full-scale paramedic kit in the dressing room."

Why is he surging in Iowa? "Because the people are very, very smart here."

Huckabee doesn't bemoan the baby boomers' retirement in actuarial terms the way other candidates do. He says: "If you think that Medicare is expensive now, wait until 10,000 aging hippies a day find out they can get free drugs."

The yuks get him out of sticky situations -- as when, discussing Romney, he wondered aloud whether Mormons think that Jesus and the devil were brothers. "I can barely keep up with being a Baptist," the former Baptist preacher explains. "People asked me when I ran for office in Arkansas if all the Baptists were active in my campaign. I said, 'Every one of them are active: half for me, half against me.' "

It's hard to imagine another candidate making fun of the 2004 water-taxi accident in Baltimore that resulted in five deaths. "The Coast Guard capacity for boats was developed in 1962, when the average American weighed 142 pounds, and today the average American weighs 184 pounds -- and that's without clothes," he says. "Fortunately for all of us, the people on the boat that day were wearing clothes. Unfortunately for them . . . the weight capacity was way over the load."

For the Huckabee wit, nothing succeeds like excess. He has baffled an audience in New Hampshire by saying: "I've been accused of just about everything, including the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and implicit participation in the JFK assassination." And he raised eyebrows at a presidential debate Wednesday in Johnston, Iowa, when he said his education plan included "weapons of mass instruction."

Now at Des Moines University, he's giving a health-policy talk that ranges from how to make a fried Twinkie ("Batter it, fry it, put powdered sugar on it, put it on the end of a stick and sell it for $3") to his fight against diabetes ("We needed to come up with a different exit strategy for my life"). He even has a riff about seat belts. He puts on a heavy Southern accent to play an Arkansas mechanic being asked to install a seat belt in the 1960s: "You wanna do what? You wanna put in a strap so you tie yourself down in that car?"

Next it's question time, which sounds more like a night at the improv. His biggest surprise on the campaign trail? "How lousy the airline system is."

His expectations for the debate? "We went in there thinking I'd probably get a few upside the head."

Mailings attacking him? "The post office is having a very good month, and it has nothing to do with Christmas."

Besides, if Huckabee really needs money, he can always impose a cover charge for his stand-up routine.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company