Aboard the Huckabus

I'm riding across Iowa in a tour bus carrying members of the press assigned to cover Mike Huckabee, after whom the bus is named. Huckabus: Is there a candidate whose name has inspired the creation of so many new words? Think Huckaboom (for the candidate's surge in the polls, which has him leading the Republican field in Iowa) and Huckabust (for the candidate's impending demise, predicted by some hopeful observers). Huck is the root from which you can invent your own Huckaword. This marketing-savvy campaign hardly minds the many uses of Huck. Even the unflattering ones remind people of a certain candidate for president. You're going to remember the name Huckabee--a precondition, if you think about it, for giving the candidate your vote.

On this cold and overcast day in late December, in a blitz of cities and towns between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Huckabee actually makes his surname a critical piece of his closing argument. He observes that in the Declaration of Independence the nation's Founding Fathers did "something pretty amazing," for they recognized that "the intrinsic value and worth of every human being lies in their uniqueness as defined by God." It's not something they get from "their government or their ancestry or their ethnicity or their net worth or where they live or the last name they have."

As he has throughout the year, Huckabee grounds his pro-life position in the Declaration's recognition of the inalienable right to life. But now, in the heat of the campaign, with the Iowa caucuses just days away, he also uses the Declaration to argue that, in light of its recognition that all men are created equal, any man (or woman) can become president. Even someone like him, the son of working class parents in Hope, Arkansas, the first in his "entire male lineage" to graduate from high school, much less go to college. He put himself through college in just "two years and three months," since four years would have cost too much.

Now, as it happens, there are some who don't recognize that any American can become president. One "Republican muckety-muck," as Huckabee called the unfortunate former Bush aide Dan Bartlett, "made the comment that nobody would ever elect a guy with the last name 'Huckabee.' It was a name that sounded too much like a hick." Bartlett didn't quite say that--he actually praised Huckabee as "the most visionary" candidate while noting that he had the "negativity of something he can't change like his given last name." Huckabee says he doesn't care about what Bartlett said. But plainly he does.

"To me," he tells the rally in Marshalltown, "'Huckabee' sounds like an old-fashioned, hard-working family that believes that if you work real hard in this country you can get somewhere. If that doesn't mean anything anymore, then the Founding Fathers were wrong. But I don't believe that. I believe they were right. I think you are worth as much as anyone else."

As the case of Bartlett shows, Huckabee is not shy about criticizing members of his own party. He couldn't care less, it seems, whether he wins many votes (at least in Iowa and the early primaries) from the Republican "establishment" (his term) or from the Republican rich (often one and the same). And he makes humorous reference to his name to distinguish himself from those Republicans.

"Many of you will have noticed that I grew up with a last name that opened a lot of doors," he says. Lowering his voice, speaking as though he were an admissions officer, or the guard at a fancy club, he continues, "'Well, he's a Huckabee, we better let him in.'" The crowd loves it. He continues: "In my family, 'summer' was never a verb"--the way it is for some. "We summered in hay fields, chicken yards, and all kinds of stuff."

The battle for Iowa is between Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who has criticized Huckabee on numerous matters--among them illegal immigration (the Arkansan is too soft), national security and foreign policy (he's naive about Iran, too impressed with diplomacy, dared criticize Bush), and his 10-year record as governor of Arkansas (raised taxes, spent too much, pardoned too many). The conventional wisdom in the press is that, notwithstanding Iowa's famous reputation for penalizing those who run negative campaigns, Romney may have halted Huckabee's remarkable surge and may have a shot at winning.

To judge by Huckabee's performance at these rallies, the Romney assault has put the former governor on the defensive. While he discusses his own positions--for the fair tax, for energy independence, for a new approach to health care--he also devotes more than a little time to responding to Romney's multi-pronged attacks. Referring to Romney simply as "my opponent," Huckabee calls the attacks "dishonest and desperate," and says, "If you want a president who gets elected because he attacks the other guy, then I'm probably not going to be your choice."

It's clear that Huckabee doesn't like Romney, but not just because Romney has gone negative. Huckabee doesn't like what Romney represents: someone who has the means to outspend him in Iowa 20 to 1 (a ratio Huckabee constantly points out), someone who can "buy" Iowa and perhaps the GOP nomination. America, he tells supporters in Marshalltown, "is not about the people born on third base and who think they just hit a triple. It's about people who start from nowhere."

Huckabee is the one Republican candidate in the race who has talked often about working class and middle class Americans and the anxieties they have even in an economy that by the numbers looks pretty good. In an interview aboard the Huckabus, the candidate once again discussed the economic situation of "people at the lower ends of the economic scale," who because of rising energy, health care, and education prices "don't have the same level of disposable income they had this time a year ago."

The real story of the Huckabee campaign is that his candidacy contemplates a refashioning of the Republican party to address the concerns of middle and working class Americans. Thus, while it's true that many of these Americans are also religious conservatives--and true, too, that Huckabee leads among Iowa's religious conservatives by a very wide margin--it's a mistake to think that his campaign is narrowly pitched to that group of voters.

Huckabee has yet to fashion economic policies that might appeal to middle and working class voters--"Sam's Club Republicans," as they have been called, in contrast to the old "country club Republicans." But at some point his campaign presumably will have to offer policies to match his rhetoric.

What was striking about the rallies I saw was the extent to which Huckabee hopes to make common cause with people like himself--"who don't necessarily have the right pedigree .  .  . or the right last name .  .  . or all the resources"--in order to defeat his opponents. Thus, in Waterloo, he told the audience, "Nothing more gets to the heart of what we are than to say that no matter where you came from, or what your last name is, or what your parents were, or what they do for a living, you matter. You may not pick where you started from, but you have every opportunity to decide where you end up." That "you" is not an impersonal usage. As he told the audience, "I've lived the life many of you have lived."

As for his opponents, they include not just the Republican establishment but also evangelical leaders he regards as part of the establishment; the "chattering class" of both old and new media; and secularists hostile to expressions of faith in public life. In Cedar Rapids, before a gathering of the Iowa Christian Alliance, Huckabee defended the TV Christmas ad in which he mentions "the birth of Christ." He remarked on "the level of true religious bigotry that exists in our culture--that for those of us who are people of faith, it's okay to have it but please keep it to yourselves."

Last July, when I reported on Huckabee's efforts in this state--and he was at 1 or 2 percent in the polls--his rhetoric was much less populist. Nor had he acquired these opponents. His campaign lacked the sense of grievance that shows up in it now. But the crowds now are much larger, and they respond well, leaving Huckabee increasingly confident that he can hold his lead through January 3. Though he still says his goal is to place in the top three, any finish other than first, given his lead in the polls, would be a setback to his campaign, perhaps a fatal one.

With so much at stake, Huckabee, 12 years a Baptist pastor, rises to the occasion in closing these rallies. He urges his audience to "stop and think about" the fact that "my opponent has outspent me 20 to 1." He assumes their solidarity: "Some of you in this room feel like your whole life you've had the odds against you. . . . You know how frustrating it can be." He explains that the reason he is ahead is that "there are a lot of Americans who feel like they've got odds about 20 to 1 stacked against them. They know they don't have the last name that opens the door. They know they don't have the pedigree [or] . . . the friend in high places that gets things done for them. They like to believe that a guy who lives their life can become president." Why? "Because they know if that can happen still in this country, then we're a nation that cannot be bought off"--meaning by the likes of Mitt Romney. Nor can we be told what to do "by those chattering-class folks in Washington and Wall Street who think the world is all about them." And as for the Republican establishment, to Huckabee, it's us versus them:

They don't mind having us vote for them. They don't mind having us empower them. They don't mind even coming and patting us on the head and telling us they'll think very seriously about taking to heart the issues we think important. But when they get elected, they forget who we are and they never push the issues we think are important. And they are scared to death that someone who isn't part of them might actually get elected and might actually go to Washington with a view saying "I do know where I come from and I haven't forgotten where I've been and I go for all those people whose odds are stacked against them 20 to 1."

Huckabee sees Iowa as nothing less than the beginning of the change he envisions. "Folks," he closed his speech in Marshalltown,

if we can do it, we'll change politics in this country and we won't turn it upside down but we'll turn it right side up, like it ought to. That's what America is supposed to be. Not a nation of a ruling class and a servant class. The way our Founding Fathers had it, the ruling class is the regular folks out there voting, the servant class is the one who gets elected. We're not elected to be the ruling class, we were elected to be the servant class serving the people who are the ruling class. Let's make that happen.

If it does, look for a profusion of new Huckawords to describe the shifting political landscape.

Terry Eastland is publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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