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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 14:10 GMT
Upbeat Huckabee faces rough ride
By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Iowa

Mike Huckabee addresses the National Rifle Association's 'A Celebration of American Values' in Washington, DC (file photo)
Mr Huckabee has support among Iowa's religious conservatives

What a difference a few months make.

In May, I was the only reporter present as Mike Huckabee campaigned at a Nascar event in South Carolina.

This week, in Newton, Iowa, I could barely squeeze into a room, heaving with camera crews, as an expectant group of local voters gathered for a "Meet Mike Huckabee Coffee Morning".

For the first time in this frequently baffling Republican contest, the former governor of Arkansas has attained the status of a leading candidate.

His brand of retail politics has suddenly become highly marketable.

Over the past few weeks, he has emerged as a serious contender for the nomination, with polls putting him first in Iowa and second across the nation.

Compassionate conservative

In this state, which will be home to the first presidential caucuses on 3 January, Mike Huckabee's rise has been steady, and, in retrospect, not too surprising.

Les Gillette
My impression is that he relates to the people here - he doesn't talk through you or down to you, but to you
Les Gillette

Republican caucus-goers in Iowa tend to come from the socially conservative wing of the party, which the ordained Baptist minister proudly represents.

His pro-life, pro-gun message, mixed with frequent references to the plight of the poor is perfectly pitched to these voters.

He comes across as authentic and funny. A comedic as well as a compassionate conservative.

Rudy Giuliani may be tougher, Mitt Romney may have been a more successful businessman, but Mike Huckabee seems, to them, to be the more authentic candidate - attaining what is, in many ways, the holy grail of presidential politics.

Two pensioners, Roberta and Mildred, emerge from an hour of policy talk peppered with folksy quips, brandishing their Mike Huckabee yard signs.

"He's the first candidate I've got excited about," says Mildred. "His moral values excite me."

"He sounds just like us," pipes up Roberta. "He believes what we believe."

Spontaneity

For Les Gillette, what is important is the sense of connection he feels, both to what Mike Huckabee says and to the manner in which he says it.

Supporters of Mike Huckabee at an open house for Iowa Campaign Headquarters on 4 December
Huckabee is first in the polls in Iowa despite a low-budget campaign

"My impression is that he relates to the people here. He doesn't talk through you or down to you, but to you," he says. "I came here with an open mind, but I'm leaning towards him."

Many of Mike Huckabee's lines are well-rehearsed, but he frequently displays a spontaneity which marks him out from the rest as a highly effective communicator.

Here is one example. At a crowded event in Des Moines, a photographer lost her shoe in the media scrum which surrounds the candidate these days.

Quick as a flash, he grabbed the errant piece of footwear and dropped to one knee, all Prince Charming, to deliver the shoe back to its rightful foot. "It should have been a glass slipper," he sighed with a regretful smile.

Chubbier days

But how fragile is his current position?

Certainly, his opponents are not waiting to find out. They have begun attacking a candidate whom they had previously ignored.

Perhaps none has done so more vigorously than former senator and actor Fred Thompson, who is facing an unexpected challenge for the role of leading homespun southerner.

Running for president is like a Nascar race - everyone thinks this thing is settled by the first few laps - but it isn't
Mike Huckabee

His campaign has been picking apart Mike Huckabee's record on taxes, using footage from his chubbier Arkansas days to argue that - as governor - he was a tax-raiser, not the tax-cutter that he claims.

The Thompson campaign has also questioned his championing of a plan to replace income taxes with a higher sales tax - and his stance on illegal immigration which, it believes, is out of step with the grassroots of the party.

And while the more positive news from Iraq is currently giving domestic issues greater prominence in the campaign, there is now a growing scrutiny of Mike Huckabee's lack of foreign policy experience.

He has come under fire this week for being unaware of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, after it had dominated the news for 24 hours.

He blamed it on the rigours of full time campaigning, but it is another sign that his team is struggling to catch up - in numbers and resources - with the candidate's new status.

Another subject for scrutiny is the case of Wayne Dumond - the jailed rapist whom then Governor Huckabee helped to set free on parole, only for him to rape and kill on his release.

With his new frontrunner status have come awkward questions about his judgement in the affair.

Political lightweight

On the campaign trail, though, Mr Huckabee has been trying to brush off the criticisms with a joke.

"I always say that the best information probably isn't coming from my opponents," he told an audience in Des Moines, "But what I say about them - it's all true."

He has also skilfully avoided attacking any of the other candidates directly - something which stands in contrast to the kind of jousting in which Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have been indulging recently.

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But what about the electability of a man with a last name which - even his supporters acknowledge - does not exactly sound presidential?

Since the beginning of the campaign, the general perception has been that, while he may be likeable, the man who lost 110lb after he was diagnosed with diabetes is too much of a political lightweight to beat any potential Democratic opponent.

It is the reason why leading evangelicals have not endorsed him.

For his part, the candidate argues that his electoral victories in Arkansas show that he can beat Democrats in the Clintons' back yard.

It is a boast that the others in the race would love to make.

He still lacks money and - importantly - the sort of campaign organisation which could be crucial to maintaining the momentum he is expected to gain in Iowa.

This does mean, though, that doing so well without an organisation is a potent sign of his political savvy.

At the Nascar event earlier this year he used a metaphor which was as pertinent then as it sounds prescient now.

"Running for president is like a Nascar race," he told me.

"It's 500 miles and there are going to be some guys out in front who won't see the chequered flag.

"Some won't have enough gas in their fuel tank, some will hit the wall and run into each other. Everyone thinks this thing is settled by the first few laps. But it isn't."

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
An assessment of Mike Huckabee's chances



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