If you are looking for signs that a dark horse is moving up in the presidential field, there is a more telling indicator to watch than poll numbers. It’s when the opposition decides he is becoming enough of a threat to take a shot at him. That’s why there was special signficance, an arrival of sorts, to Mitt Romney’s seemingly offhand observation Friday in an Iowa Public Television interview that Mike Huckabee had supported “special tuition breaks to the children of illegal immigrants.” It marked the first time that the GOP frontrunner in Iowa had ever singled out Huckabee for an attack.
“I must be doing well,” Huckabee said Saturday morning, when I told him what Romney had said. The former Arkansas Governor had not known about the swipe. Huckabee had spent Friday night, as he put it, “rocking the stage” with his band Capitol Offense before an estimated 650 people at the fabled Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, which was the last place Buddy Holly had played before he died in a plane crash in 1959. On Saturday, Huckabee was to try his hand at pheasant hunting, a popular Iowa sport, which he considered an apt metaphor. “You never put the crosshairs on a dead carcass,” Huckabee said. “Somebody sees me as a real wall mount, and that’s a good thing.”
Romney’s comment referred to legislation that Huckabee had supported when he was Governor of Arkansas, which never went anywhere. But that’s not the last that Republicans in Iowa, a state where immigration is a front-burner issue, are likely to hear of it. Huckabee is suddenly looking like he could make a very strong showing in the nation’s first presidential contest on January 3. The buzz started building with his surprising second-place finish in August’s Ames straw poll. Then, the ordained Southern Baptist minister wowed them at this month’s Values Voter Summit. It is beginning to look like he may be the one for the GOP’s yet-unsettled evangelical voters, who tend to wield an outsized influence in the Iowa caucuses.
His successes have been all the more remarkable for having been accomplished on a shoestring budget, suggesting that genuine voter affection, as opposed to advertising dollars, is driving the Huckabee surge. He noted that Friday also marked the first time he had passed the well-financed Romney in a national poll, albeit by a single, well-within-the-margin-of-error point. “I guess I’d be coming after me too,” Huckabee said. “I’d also be crying, if I’d spent all that money.”
Romney is not the only one who is suddenly feeling the need to educate conservatives on aspects of Huckabee’s record that they might not feel so comfortable about. The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund wrote this column focusing on Huckabee’s fiscal record in Arkansas, which included raising taxes. Fund quoted Betsy Hagan, Arkansas head of the conservative Eagle Forum and a disaffected former Huckabee supporter, making just about the most toxic comparison anyone could make in a Republican primary:
“He was pro-life and pro-gun, but otherwise a liberal,” she says. “Just like Bill Clinton he will charm you, but don’t be surprised if he takes a completely different turn in office.”
Huckabee talks about the Clintons, too, but in a different context. He claims he is the GOP candidate who knows and understands best how to beat Hillary Clinton, and notes that every election he won in Arkansas was “against the headwind of the Clinton political machine.”
So how much of a threat has Huckabee become? The key thing to remember about Iowa is that the winner isn’t always the candidate who finishes first; it’s the one who gets the best headlines. (Indeed, one of the secrets of the whole exercise is that no actual delegates get selected in the caucuses; that happens later at party conventions.) Though Ed Muskie finished well ahead of George McGovern in 1972, for instance, it was McGovern who got the burst of momentum coming out of Iowa that put him on the road to the nomination and the Iowa caucuses on the political map.
Beating expectations can be the real victory, and they are rising fast for Huckabee. One big question is whether he can build an organization that can bring his growing evangelical fan club out on a cold winter night to caucus. There, however, he has gotten something of a break from Kansas Senator Sam Brownback’s departure from the race. Brownback had also been a favorite of evangelicals, and he had been working hard to build a campaign operation in Iowa. Word is that much of his organization is heading Huckabee’s way.
Still, Huckabee acknowledged it is likely to get much rougher from here. “I always enjoy letting the other guy draw the first blood,” he told me. “Once blood is drawn, all is fair in love and war.”