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Suddenly A Contender, Huckabee Scrambles

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

It was a Tuesday evening in Des Moines in early December, and Mike Huckabee was tired.

The former Arkansas governor, who had been considered a long-shot for most of his GOP presidential bid, suddenly found himself leading in the polls in Iowa, home of the crucial Jan. 3 caucuses. Media outlets were taking a closer look at the candidate, asking tough questions about his role in the parole of a convicted rapist; special interest-groups like the anti-tax Club For Growth were stepping up their attacks; and his GOP rivals, after ignoring Huckabee for most of the campaign, were plotting how to take him down.

Now a reporter was asking Huckabee about the National Intelligence Estimate report, which had found that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago. The report had been front-page news, and it seemed likely to transform the rhetoric about Iran coming from the presidential candidates.

Huckabee, to the surprise of the reporters gathered around him, was unfamiliar with the report. It was an embarrassing gaffe for a candidate desperate to convince skeptics about his foreign policy bona fides.

The next day, he would explain his lack of awareness to CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

"I had been up about 20 hours at that time, and had not even so much as had the opportunity to look at a newspaper," he said. "We were literally going from early in the morning to late that night, and talking to guys like you."

Huckabee has good reason to spend his time talking to journalists: Lacking the campaign funds of rivals like Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, he relies on free airtime, not advertising, to get his face in front of the public. It has worked: Huckabee now sits atop polls in Iowa and South Carolina, and a new CBS News poll finds him virtually tied with Giuliani for first-place nationally.

Despite the success, however, Huckabee is still running something of a long-shot's campaign. He lacks the on-the-ground organization of Romney in Iowa, for example. Instead, the Baptist minister is tapping into existing networks of religious conservatives, tax reform advocates, and even home-schoolers.

"It's going to be an interesting case study in Iowa caucus history," Bob Vander Plaats, Huckabee's Iowa chairman, told "You're going to have an unpaid, volunteer, true believer network for Gov. Huckabee for the January 3rd caucus night versus a well-staffed, well-organized machine for Mitt Romney."

That may be something of an exaggeration: The Huckabee campaign estimates its paid staff in Iowa in at between 14 and 18 people, while the Romney campaign says it has 17 paid staffers in the state. But many of the Huckabee staffers are recent hires, and his campaign lacks the traditional political machinery that Romney long-ago established.

"There are tactical advantage of getting into Iowa early," according to Steve McMahon, media advisor for Howard Dean in 2004. "When you're well known and well regarded and thought to have a really good chance, it enables you to recruit people who will give you a really big advantage later."

McMahon said that Huckabee may be better positioned than Dean, since much of his network is made up of conservative Christians, a relatively politically savvy group. But he says early organization can make a huge difference in Iowa, where the caucus format adds a social aspect to the voting process.

"I still believe that John Kerry went a long way towards winning Iowa a year or two before we even got there," he said.

Huckabee also lacks the type of inner circle that some of his rivals, particularly Giuliani, have relied on to helped craft their public positions. Huckabee's approach to policy has been far more informal. His recently-unveiled immigration plan, for example, wasn't worked out with advisers; Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman told that it is simply a restatement of "what he's been saying on the campaign trail all along." According to Vander Plaats, Huckabee threw his support behind the FairTax proposal, which would replace federal income and payroll taxes with a consumption tax, after he was asked about it, and given a book on the topic, while on the campaign trail.

That isn't to say that Huckabee doesn't have advisers, among them businessman French Hill, Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council, and Janice Cherry, his policy director. But now that he is a legitimate contender, Huckabee is facing more scrutiny of his public-policy positions, particularly when it comes to foreign affairs. And as the National Intelligence Estimate report incident illustrated, he has at times struggled to keep up.

"The whole thing has taken off faster than he anticipated, and he's having trouble riding the rocket," says David Yepsen, chief political correspondent for The Des Moines Register.

Huckabee now faces a crucial moment in his campaign: Romney has begun an Iowa counteroffensive, which includes a new ad contrasting the rivals' positions on illegal immigration, and Huckabee will likely be a big target at Wednesday's Register-sponsored GOP presidential debate. He is also facing new questions about comments he made in 1992 on issues ranging from AIDS to killing Saddam Hussein to women in combat.

But Huckabee is trying to take it all in stride. Asked Tuesday about increasing criticism from his opponents, he was dismissive. "We obviously are scoring and our offense is working," Huckabee said. "And I think that's what we want to focus on - why I should be president and why somebody else shouldn't."
By Brian Montopoli

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