DES MOINES, Iowa — Is Mike Huckabee just a one-night stand in Iowa, or is he someone Republicans nationwide are ready to marry?
Three weeks before Iowa Republicans kick off the voting, they're poised to give a surprising victory to Huckabee and send him on to the rest of the country as the front-runner for the party's presidential nomination.
But even if Huckabee wins Iowa, can the folksy unknown go on to win? He could be tripped up by three Rs — his religion, his record, and his resources.
Christian conservatives in Iowa like the former Baptist preacher and Arkansas governor. They warmed to him in recent weeks as they decided they couldn't rally behind any of his rivals. In a state where Christian conservatives will make up 40 percent of the GOP vote at the Jan. 3 precinct caucuses, they could deliver him victory. His lead is also helped by the calendar, as attacks on him might not penetrate during the Christmas holidays, and could even backfire among Iowans filled with holiday spirit.
But while his overtly Christian message is resonating with religious conservatives in Iowa, will it sell in states like New Hampshire, Florida and California?
His record as governor is getting scrutiny for the first time, and it's not pure conservative. How will conservatives react when they learn that he repeatedly raised taxes?
He's raising cash now, and volunteers are rolling into Iowa, but he still doesn't have much of a campaign. Can he compete with the cash-rich campaigns of Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani once this year's leisurely pace in Iowa turns into a frantic state-to-state sprint and TV-dominated campaign for the 20-plus mega-states voting on Feb.5?
"Huckabee's benefiting from the lack of enthusiasm that social conservatives have for the rest of the field," said Dan Schnur, a veteran GOP strategist from California not associated with any campaign.
"But as primary voters find out more about him along the primary trail, it's hard to see him sustaining that level of support much past Iowa. As the primaries move to other states and the nature of the electorate changes, it may become harder for him to expand his support."
Huckabee's happy to get the attention.
"They're going through every old wastebasket they can find to dig up anything I have ever said, but I understand," he said this week. "If anything, I'm kind of delighted that it's happening, because there's no way that this wouldn't be happening if I wasn't scaring some people to death."
What's scaring them is that Huckabee at last found a way to win over the social conservatives that all the Republican candidates had been courting.
"A lot of my core issues are kind of social conservative issues," said Scott Spray, 48, of Johnston, a district manager with H&R Block. "Abortion is pretty important. Keeping marriage between a man and a woman, that tends to be a key issue for a lot of folks."
"His views on many issues relate very well with Midwestern views," said Ben Booth, a construction salesman navigating an ice storm to snag a pair of Huckabee signs for his front yard.
Huckabee can expect similar support in states such as Michigan, where Christian conservatives could make up a third of the Jan. 15 GOP vote, or South Carolina, where they could make up 60 percent of the Jan. 19 GOP vote.
He's the most openly religious candidate since televangelist Pat Robertson in 1988. In one Huckabee TV ad, the first word spoken is "faith," and the first words appearing on screen are "Christian leader."
"You would think, watching his ads, that there is a religious test for office," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.
That might not sell in other states where religious conservatives are not as strong. And new attention to his earlier statements, such as one supporting the Southern Baptist tenet that wives should submit to their husbands, could pose trouble among moderate and independent voters.
Then there's his record as governor.
Huckabee raised taxes in Arkansas. He backed a proposal to let the children of illegal immigrants earn the same college aid as citizens. He's accused of pressing to parole a convicted rapist who later murdered a Kansas City woman.
"He did have a lot of tax increases," said Nils Norland, a real estate appraiser from Ankeny, Iowa. "Once true conservatives look at his record more closely, I think his support will change."
His rivals are striving to make sure Republicans hear about those things.
"Huckabee offered in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. That's something he'd probably just as soon no one talk about," former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said this week, twisting Huckabee's record to expand his tuition aid proposal from children to illegal immigrants themselves.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is airing a TV ad blasting Huckabee on immigration. And the Club for Growth, a well-financed anti-tax group with a history of slashing ads against Republicans who've raised taxes, opposes Huckabee.
"If he thinks the questions are tough now, just wait to see what happens after he wins the Iowa caucuses," said Schnur. "He's going to face the same intensity of questions on taxes and immigration that other candidates get on abortion."
Finally, there's the question of whether Huckabee has the resources to compete.
Starved for cash most of the year, he's benefited from strong performances in televised debates and word of mouth. And he's attracting volunteers.
They're people like sisters Kristin Dulin, 25, and Kassie Dulin, 21, of Dallas, Texas. They met Huckabee at a fund-raiser with their parents in June, became enthralled and vowed to join the effort.
"He spoke about life issues, about the marriage amendment, about immigration issues," Kristin Dulin recalled.
Just after Thanksgiving, the women drove 13 hours to Iowa, moved in with a local campaign staffer and began work.
Out-of-state volunteers Kristy Warren, 44, and her son Joel, 15, came from Minneapolis. They found themselves this week buying 3,000 candy canes for Huckabee at an Iowa Wal-Mart.
"He represents the things that are important to me," said Warren, a homeschooler who learned about Huckabee in an email from a homeschooling group. "He's strongly pro-life, strong on family and marriage things, on border security."
The candy canes?
Mother and son planned to tie them to slips of paper printed with Christmas wishes, a snapshot of Mike and Janet Huckabee and a quote from the biblical Book of Isaiah that Christians see as a prophetic reference to Jesus Christ.
Can such devotion compete against the better-financed campaigns awaiting Huckabee in later states?
For one thing, the Internet makes it easy to raise money quickly following a victory. Schnur said that Huckabee could raise tens of millions of dollars if he wins. But renting office space, hiring staff, buying TV time and getting organized in time to compete in the Feb. 5 onslaught of voting in more than 20 states is another thing.
To Huckabee, it's all a blessing.
"I just am always reminded that a ragtag army of under-equipped, under-financed, under-trained and under-prepared people won the Revolutionary War," he said after this week's debate.
"There's an old saying in the South: It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog that determines the outcome. And there's a lot of fight in this dog."