DES MOINES, Iowa — Entering a packed auditorium, Mike Huckabee was barely visible inside the white-hot huddle of news cameras, boom mikes and popping strobes.
A month before Iowa's first-in-the-nation Jan. 3 presidential caucuses, the former Arkansas governor was even drawing European reporters sniffing for the next Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
"It's probably a little distracting for you," he told a crowd of 400 insurance workers. "But it is kind of nice."
A few months ago, Huckabee was a campaign afterthought, a friendly guy with the funny-sounding name. Today he's the upstart who could transform former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney into another Phil Gramm or Steve Forbes — ghosts of caucuses past who found that big money can't necessarily win over Iowa.
A new McClatchy-MSNBC poll that found him passing Romney in Iowa and South Carolina suggests that Republicans nationwide just might go for the guy with the church-solid conservative bona fides over more liberal candidates such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or the former Massachusetts governor — and Mormon — Mitt Romney.
Democrats, meantime, have begun to eye him anxiously as a formidable general election foe who could argue compassionate conservatism with conviction.
"He's not one of these who only knows what the Bible tells him, (but) no one is going to question that he's a true social conservative," said Samuel Popkin, a pollster for The Economist who's worked for Democrats including Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. "He's going to take a lot of votes from Romney. He's that conservative who other conservatives don't have to worry about and who liberals can learn from."
Huckabee's sudden high profile, sparked by refreshing performances in a series of debates, has begun to draw fire.
Some anti-tax groups contend that he's not conservative enough. He took heat when an ostensibly independent group — backed by a leading Huckabee fundraiser — dialed "push poll" calls to Iowans attacking his rivals.
Most prominently, last week several news organizations replayed his role as governor of Arkansas advocating the parole of a convicted rapist, a man who later was convicted of the murder of one woman and suspected in the killing of a man in Missouri.
"Huckabee finally became visible," said Robert Ray, a moderate Republican and former Iowa governor who has yet to pick a favorite in the presidential race. "Before, Romney was leading and he was a target. Now Huckabee's a target, too."
As Iowa has developed into a budding showdown with Romney, Huckabee fell into the awkward position of fielding questions about Romney's Mormon faith. "I don't think it's relevant to the presidency," the Baptist preacher and one-time religious broadcaster said, even as he aired commercials describing him as a "Christian leader."
He seemed to fumble questions Tuesday about a new National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program four years ago. That focused attention on a potential weak spot: a lack of experience in military and foreign affairs.
His campaign ascendancy also has invited media attention to Huckabee's longstanding arguments with the Arkansas Ethics Commission over the propriety of gifts he received as governor.
And the anti-tax Club for Growth expanded its attack on his record of raising taxes in Arkansas to pay for better schools and roads.
"Huckabee himself admits that he's a 'different kind of Republican,' a code word for more government involvement, less personal freedom, and greater dependence on government bureaucrats," Club president Pat Toomey said on the group's Web site.
At the same time, Huckabee's rise in the polls has created a bit of a bandwagon.
He recently got an endorsement from the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association, the teachers' group that ordinarily backs Democrats. That serves as a testament to the success he had in boosting students' test scores in Arkansas.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and the son of the founder of the Moral Majority, also has endorsed Huckabee. Earlier, prominent religious conservatives had been lining up largely behind fast starters Giuliani and Romney. Most notably, televangelist Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani despite differences on touchstone issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Huckabee still has ground to make up. Although the McClatchy-MSNBC poll found him leading in Iowa and South Carolina, it found him a distant fourth in New Hampshire, behind Romney, Giuliani and Ariz. Sen. John McCain.
"It's very hard for him to continue if he doesn't win Iowa," said James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. "If he wins Iowa, he could bounce into New Hampshire, and Romney could fall fast."
Thurber and others say it's too early to tell if Huckabee's recent rise means he can overcome Romney's well-heeled Iowa organization when it comes time to turning out warm bodies on a cold winter's night for the state's caucuses.
For now, Huckabee is trying to generate energy through news coverage and advertising. In a joking, almost deliberately campy television spot with B-movie tough guy Chuck Norris, he talks guns. He's becoming a fixture on cable news channels. The Hotline political news service says Huckabee logged more time being interviewed on news programs in November than any other presidential candidate.
"He's got that charisma and likeability going for him," said Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, which plans no endorsement.
The weeks to come likely will tell how voters respond after more exposure to his mix of religious conservatism and economic populism.
For instance, he's an advocate of the so-called fair tax, a plan that would do away with the Internal Revenue Service and income taxes in favor of a sizable federal sales tax. Populist, sure, but a monumental change — and a regressive one that would fall more heavily on the poor and middle-class than it would on the wealthy. How will people in Iowa, where home ownership ranks well above the national average, react to the prospect of losing their home mortgage deductions?
And how will voters everywhere weigh his complete lack of foreign-policy experience?
Other elements of Huckabee's candidacy — simplified to "Faith. Family. Freedom" on his Web site — play reliably well among Republicans.
He's fervently anti-abortion, unlike Giuliani. Unlike Romney, he can point to years in public life with an unbending "pro-life" stance. He's long been opposed to marriage or civil unions for gay couples. He enacted hard-to-dissolve "covenant marriages" in Arkansas. He and his wife both hold concealed-carry gun permits.
Combine his Republican-friendly positions with his easy on-camera persona — a politician who rarely equivocates, who exudes a comfort with his convictions — and the skills polished since the Baptist minister began giving sermons as a teenager serve him well on the stump.
"It's a wide open race," said Charles O. Jones, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "You've got no vice president running. There's no governor of a big state . . . . He shows up and he comes across warmly on TV. He's quick on his feet. Now the question is whether he'll last."
(Canon and Montgomery report for The Kansas City Star.)