VINTON, Iowa — If America’s still a sucker for southern-fried governors, aw-shucksing their way into the hearts of good-hearted, God-loving people, breezy as a summer day, folksy as homemade pie, then prepare for a long date with Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, is hot stuff on the presidential campaign trail. He's threatening to break into the top ranks of Republicans with the down-home charisma of the Southern Baptist minister he is and the record of bipartisan achievement he earned in more than 10 years as governor.
He's in second place in recent polls of Iowa, which kicks off voting Jan. 3. His fundraising remains anemic, but he’s doing better as his poll numbers rise; he raised more money in a recent week than he did in the four months prior. At many campaign stops in Iowa last week, aides hustled to get more chairs and expand rooms to accommodate unexpected crowds.
Huckabee’s easy-listening message combines long-held social conservative principles on abortion and marriage with a plea for national unity; that last bit comes across like a short, pasty version of Barack Obama's. Like Obama, Huckabee insists that his message will bring new voters into the caucuses.
“The greatest problem we have is this country is so very divided and polarized,” Huckabee said after touring a factory in Cedar Falls. “We are a house divided against ourselves. If this country doesn’t quit seeing the polarization not only of its politics but of its culture, where people cannot even have a civil discourse over things about which they disagree, we’re gonna have a hard time solving the problems that we really face.”
He's occasionally iconoclastic: He criticizes GOP rivals who recite “RNC talking points” saying that the economy is humming. Working people, Huckabee says, know otherwise. He calls the environment “a spiritual issue.” He's less interested in debating the causes of climate change than in focusing “on what we all agree on: Do we have a responsibility to leave the Earth in a better state than we found it?” He calls for a cap-and-trade policy on carbon emissions and encouraging environmentally friendly alternatives to foreign fuel.
“If you can’t find points of agreement, start looking for ways to find something,” Huckabee said. He noted that as governor, he worked with a Democratic-dominated legislature to improve schools, roads and health care.
Still, when he vows, as he did at an education forum last week at the University of Northern Iowa, to increase teacher pay and says that “trying to learn math and science without learning art and music is like trying to fly an airplane with a wing on the left but not on the right,” he can seem like the “pro-life liberal” that Fred Thompson, his rival for social-conservative voters, calls him.
Greg Januska, a letter carrier from Cedar Rapids, appreciated Huckabee’s approach: “I think he has the sense to see that all the good ideas don’t come from Republicans. … We’re Americans before we’re Republicans, Democrats or independents.”
Huckabee tells voters that his sense of government comes from lessons that his blue-collar parents taught him. From his mom: “The golden rule: Treat people as you would want to be treated.” From his dad: “Tell the truth. That way you don’t have to remember what you said the last time.”
Huckabee does challenge his listeners, warning of the long fight looming against Islamic fundamentalism. But he does it without the bellicosity that marks the pronouncements of rivals such as Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. His from-the-heart delivery, honed by years in Arkansas pulpits, has none of the ultra-suede smoothness of Mitt Romney.
At the heart of his campaign are Huckabee’s core beliefs: Abortion and gay marriage are anathema and must be stopped. A large part of his recent success is due to many conservative voters' suspicion that Huckabee’s rivals are paying only lip service to those issues.
His message, and the anecdotes he uses to draw it, may sound hokey to cynics. But it clearly connects with people as they sit in small meeting rooms in small Iowa towns, nodding knowingly at Huckabee’s tales of poverty, striving and faith.
“He seems more real than some of the candidates we’ve come across,” said Greg Tagtow, an electrical controls technician in Waterloo.
Illustrating a point about freedom and patriotism, Huckabee told the story of a Little Rock teacher who removed all the desks from her room and told students that they would have to earn them. While the students stood flummoxed, 27 veterans strode into the room carrying the school desks, and the teacher told the students: “That’s OK. They already earned them for you.”
The crowd responded with a couple of shouts of “Yeah!” and applause.
``He’s down to earth, and I trust him,” said Wayne Paige, a retired farm real estate salesman from Dike, Iowa.
With Huckabee’s rise has come criticism. He raised some taxes as governor and so reaped the anger of the rich anti-tax group Club for Growth. Even so, he points out, he lowered taxes far more frequently than he hiked them.
And he calls for a national sales tax to replace the current tax code, which he says would spark an economic boom. Critics, however, will attack his proposal as regressive, more burdensome to lower-income people than to the wealthy — that is, they will if they ever take his ideas seriously.
Despite his recent success, Huckabee’s game plan has something of a Hail Mary quality about it. His post-Iowa path, which will be fast and expensive, is unclear.
Plenty of candidates have pledged to bring new caucus-goers into the system; few have succeeded. Still, in a state where about 40 percent of GOP caucus-goers are Christian conservatives, and where a pastors network is forming to help him, Huckabee may not need new participants.
“The trick for Huckabee is getting people who might be supportive of him to believe that he has a shot,” said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political scientist and pollster. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see it as a Romney/Huckabee race in Iowa.”