WEST DES MOINES, IOWA -- Yesterday he boarded a plane from Houston to Dallas with bare bones staff and a couple of CBS reporters, today he's getting the kind of treatment that would befit his rocker hero Keith Richards (who he once pardoned for a speeding ticket in Arkansas) -- standing room only crowds, a tour bus bearing his very own mug with an ear to ear grin, and an impromptu presser that turned into a media Mai Lai.
New polls have Mike Huckabee polling at 57 percent support in Iowa -- and for the presidential candidate who seems to get the most laughs, this campaign seems to be getting serious. More than two hundred supporters, journalists and last-minute holiday shoppers crammed into a back room at the Jordan Creek Town Center Mall to "Meet Mike Huckabee" today (in a room so small the Washington Post's Dana Milbank had to stand on a sink at the back of the room) as the candidate kicked off the first event of a 4-day bus tour through Iowa, before the campaign goes dark on Dec. 24 and 25th.
In his signature style of dealing with adversity through humor, Huckabee addressed the slew of GOP-fueled, anti-Hucakabee attacks that have increased with his Iowa poll numbers. "If I believed all of that stuff, I wouldn't vote for me either," chuckled Huckabee, who went on to defend his decisions to grant clemencies as governor of Arkansas. He also beat back critics who say his new "What Matters" ad references religion too overtly. He said the dust up "revealed to us how far we've slipped in our culture," as critics say it is religiously polarizing and soft on the issues. The ad's controversy hasn't been all bad – Huckabee said his campaign website got more hits yesterday than ever before, and that "What Matters" was one of the top videos on You Tube.
A candidate who tends to associate himself moreso with the "good ole days" than with contemporary Republican administrations, Huckabee's frontrunner status has not softened his populist message, the idea that you "may start at the bottom but you don't have to stay there," as he puts it.
With a radiocaster's voice and a standup comic's sense of timing, the Baptist minister hit on many of the themes and one-liners that have helped him make his mark in Iowa, taking jabs at the "well-heeled on Wall Street and Washington" who know so little about the real Americans who live on "Main Street."
The biggest laugh came when Huckabee invited "John" from the local button kiosk in the mall on stage to tout that five new Huckabee for President button styles would be available in time for Christmas.
Flanked by his daughter/field coordinator/tie consultant, Sarah Huckabee, and press secretary/marathon trainer/food minder Alice Stewart he held an impromptu press conference next to the SUV that had been used to take him the short distance from the mall to the campaign bus where nearly 20 cameras waited for him.