By Peter Slevin and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 17, 2007
ELDORA, Iowa -- Julie Roe, an early believer in Mike Huckabee, worked with what she had.
With no buttons, no yard signs and no glossy literature from his nearly invisible Iowa campaign, she took a pair of scissors and cut out a photograph of the former Arkansas governor. She pasted it on a piece of paper, scribbled down some of his positions, made copies and launched the Huckabee for President campaign in rural Hardin County.
Roe contacted friends in her home-schooling network and bought a newspaper advertisement for $38. She spread the word in the grocery store and the church foyer: "I would tell them about Mike Huckabee and they would say, 'Who's Mike Huckleberry?' I'd say, 'No, no, no, it's Huckabee.' "
Huckabee's name is no longer a mystery to Iowa's Republican voters, in large part because of an extensive network of home-schoolers like Roe who have helped lift his underfunded campaign from obscurity to the front of a crowded field. Opinion polls show that his haphazard approach is trumping the studied strategy of Mitt Romney, who invested millions only to be shunned by many religious conservatives such as Roe, who see the former Baptist preacher from Hope, Ark., as their champion.
While early attention focused on Romney and other better-known and better-funded opponents, home-schoolers rallied to Huckabee's cause, attracted by his faith, his politics and his decision to appoint a home-school proponent to the Arkansas board of education. They tapped a web of community and church groups that share common conservative interests, blasting them with e-mails and passing along the word about Huckabee in social settings.
It was the endorsement by prominent national home-school advocate Michael Farris that helped propel Huckabee to a surprising second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll in August. And it was the twin sons of a home-school advocate in Oregon who helped put Huckabee in touch with television tough guy Chuck Norris, who appeared alongside him in an attention-getting TV spot and on the campaign trail.
Home-schoolers could also prove to be a powerful force on caucus night. By one estimate, about 9,000 Iowa children are home-schooled. Their parents could form a sizable portion of the 80,000 or so Republicans expected to show up on Jan. 3.
"We have worked harder to organize, but folks like the home-schoolers are going to be pretty motivated," acknowledged Gentry Collins, who runs Romney's Iowa campaign.
In the first nine months of the campaign, Romney ran more than 5,000 ads on Iowa television. Huckabee ran none. Romney hired staff and paid dozens of "super-volunteers," while Huckabee's approach was less structured, to put it kindly.
"It's a lot of word of mouth, certainly," said Eric Woolson, Huckabee's Iowa campaign manager, who often hears from supporters that his e-mail inbox is full. "It was me until the end of April, all by myself. Until the last week of June, there were two of us. There were three of us from August 12 until October 1."
Home-schooler and business professor Erin Hartman put it this way: "There isn't all that much strategy. It's about common people coming to the campaign and saying, 'I like Mike. What can I do?' "
Roe first noticed Huckabee because of his dedication to home-schoolers and his anti-abortion work in Arkansas. When she met him in January, she had already read his books. She knew he had campaigned nearby for an Iowa politician last year, and she liked the way he seemed both steadfast and understanding.
"I feel Mike's best because he's comfortable with us, because he's one of us. We see a genuine authenticity," Roe, 39, said. "He had me when he said there's a section of America where people just want to be left alone."
The Aug. 11 straw poll was the first important test in what was essentially a race for second place against the hyper-organized Romney.
On the eve of the poll, Huckabee received a crucial boost from the Virginia-based Farris, who created the Home School Legal Defense Association. He touted the straw poll as "the first and most critical moment in the campaign," and he headed to Iowa to rally support.
Roe, Hartman and other home-school activists encouraged friends and relatives to attend. FairTax, which advocates a national flat tax supported by Huckabee, organized on his behalf. Together, the fledgling forces helped Huckabee finish a surprising second.
Yet he still had little money or organization. Roe was one supporter who felt Huckabee could still break through, and she kept at it. She persuaded an aide to send Huckabee to Eldora after the poll: "I begged," she said.
On the eve of the August visit, she e-mailed announcements to about 50 committed home-school families in the Hardin County Home Educators network. She posted notices on bulletin boards and tapped other connections, reaching Iowa gun owners active in the fight over the Second Amendment and speaking with evangelical Christian pastors.
Home-school parents tend to be heavily involved in a range of community activities from the arts to conservation, giving them wide circles of potential allies, said Roe, who home-schooled her oldest child for a year and now keeps her two youngest at home.
"Even though the media makes it seem that we are a homogenous group of Bible-thumpers and flat-Earthers, there is a variety of opinion," Roe said.
Huckabee made it to Eldora for Roe's event at the Pizza Ranch. Several dozen people showed up, but the popular Hardin County Fair was underway and a number of prospective supporters were away at church camps. So Roe organized a second event two weeks later, drawing about 100 people.
By the end of September, the campaign had finally raised its first million dollars -- a benchmark total, yet barely pocket change in present-day presidential politics. Things picked up in October, especially after Huckabee's enthusiastic reception at the Values Voters Summit in Washington. He raised $2 million in November and began running television ads, including a clever spot with Norris.
For Norris's boost, Huckabee can thank Brett and Alex Harris, 19-year-old twins and sons of an Oregon home-school activist named Gregg Harris. They started blogs to promote Huckabee and had the idea of sending e-mails to prominent conservatives, urging them to get behind the former Arkansas governor.
One of the e-mails from the Portland pair was read to Norris, who climbed aboard, filming an ad that emphasized Huckabee's self-deprecating wit and his credentials as a social conservative and gun advocate.
The ad, which began running Nov. 19, drew laughs, attention and more money. The campaign followed with a spot that makes a direct appeal to the conservative faithful, flashing "Christian Leader" on the screen in large letters.
When a group of more than three dozen pastors in Iowa endorsed Huckabee in early December, it solidified his standing as the leading candidate among conservative Christians in the state. Yet the ministers were trailing their flocks, whose enthusiasm for Huckabee was already showing up in polls.
By this week, polls showed him ahead by 2 to 1 in Iowa and close in South Carolina and Florida.
Just weeks before the Jan. 3 caucuses, Romney's aides are counting on their larger, more formal structure to out-duel Huckabee's seat-of-the-pants operation.
Huckabee supporters, meanwhile, are debating whether his ground-up Iowa model can work in the rest of the country. Last weekend, he attended a rally in South Carolina sponsored in part by home-schoolers and headed to Florida to campaign.
"Home-schoolers organize in every state," Farris said, "so the ability to build fast networks in every state is very realistic."
Yet New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 8, has no comparable base of conservative Christian activists. And, for now at least, Huckabee's campaign treasury is dwarfed by the amounts that Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani are prepared to spend on television ads in parts of the country where Huckabee is largely unknown.
Comparing today with Huckabee's place in the race a few months ago, his early Iowa supporters are overjoyed, even if there is an occasional bittersweet moment. The other day, Roe drove 80 miles to Des Moines to see Huckabee but could not get near him because of the news media thronging around the new front-runner.
"This is what we believed would happen," said Roe, who is organizing a Dec. 20 rally in central Iowa. "But I do miss the days when we could have a cup of coffee at the Pizza Ranch and sit down and talk."