The Magazine

The Other Man From Hope

Mike Huckabee, the likable longshot in the Republican presidential race.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Muscatine, Iowa

Here in this small but engaging river city, known for its watermelons and sunsets, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, wants the two dozen Iowans seated around him in Green's Tea and Coffee to know that he's "leading" in the polls. This is startling news, since Huckabee has never polled above single digits in any survey. But Huckabee proceeds to explain. He cites the AP's interpretation of a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll saying that no top-tier candidate--not Rudy Giuliani or John McCain or Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson--did better than "none of the above." Pausing, Huckabee announces, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am †none of the above.'"

Laughter fills the spacious room at Green's Tea, which offers a splendid view of the Mississippi. The crowd warms to the Arkansan, and you can see why Huckabee gets high marks for "likability." This asset is not lost on his aides, one of whom came up with a bumper sticker declaring, "I Like Mike." It's an inspired choice. Not only do you have rhyme, but the three words echo the slogan of a Republican (Dwight D. Eisenhower, in case you asked) whose nickname was "Ike." Mike, of course, would like to be like Ike, who was twice elected president.

The poll Huckabee cites doesn't really bear the interpretation that the wire service gave it. "None of the above" was not an actual option someone could pick, but "don't know" and "not sure" and "none" were, and the percentage of Republicans choosing those options, which the AP story added up and characterized as favoring "none of the above," was the largest. Presumably, if the pollsters had pushed respondents on which way they were leaning, more would have named a candidate.

Be that as it may, the AP-Ipsos poll, when compared with an earlier one, does suggest more uncertainty among Republicans regarding who their nominee should be, and Huckabee would take that as a sign of what he says he sees on the campaign trail--increasing dissatisfaction among Republican voters with the top-tier candidates. Indeed, Huckabee believes, as he proceeds to tell the crowd here at Green's Tea, that there is a "crisis in our Republican party." By that he means "people are confused as to why it is we are Republicans and what it is we are supposed to do to get elected." Huckabee makes this point everywhere he goes, and this warm sunny day in late July finds him, after Muscatine, in Washington, Ottumwa, and Mt. Pleasant.

In an interview aboard his rented Winnebago, Huckabee--who is 51, has been married to Janet for 33 years, and has three grown children--says his strategy is to stay in the race as long as it takes for the party to figure out its "purpose and direction" and realize that the top-tier candidates would disappoint as president and that he is the best choice. "I know deep down that I meet the criteria for what I think the Republican base is looking for in a candidate and frankly what the American people are looking for in a president."

Iowa, which Huckabee has visited more often than any other state, certainly offers an opportunity for the GOP to come to its senses, in Huckabeean terms, and start showing, well, its liking for Mike. On August 11, as many as 30,000 Iowa Republicans will gather in Ames on the campus of Iowa State University and vote for the person they'd like to see as their party's nominee. This is the Republicans' straw poll, which George W. Bush won the last time it was conducted, in 1999. The results offer an early measure of organizational strength and candidate appeal, and past winners have almost always prevailed in the caucus, held in January. Huckabee says he doesn't have to win at Ames, but he does have to show "a level of momentum building." He has been reported as saying he needs to finish at least in fourth place. With John McCain and Rudy Giuliani having decided not to participate in the straw poll, fourth place seems within reach, since, assuming a first place finish by Mitt Romney, as most political observers do, Huckabee would be competing for one of three places with Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Tommy Thompson.

But Huckabee envisions a scenario in which even fifth place would be okay--"if fifth is not much different from fourth and second is not much different from fifth." In other words, if the second, third, fourth, and fifth-place finishers are bunched together--and also, Huckabee adds, if, in their bunching, they are not very far behind the man in first. What Huckabee wants is a finish strong enough "for me to go to donors and say there is a reason to contribute to this campaign." And thus to keep him in the race.