What is it about Mike Huckabee? The former Arkansas governor used to be an afterthought, a curiosity, a genial one-man sideshow to the main event of Romney vs. Giuliani vs. Thompson. But now a series of polls have shown Huckabee's political stock rising fast in Iowa, where the first-in-the-nation caucuses will be held on January 3.
National polls—less meaningful but, at the very least, a good indicator of who the national press is chattering about—are also recording a spike in voter interest in Huckabee. And, of course, there is the much-discussed Chuck Norris endorsement, which, depending on your perspective, represents either the chicken or the egg of the Huckabee surge. (Huckabee certainly suggests it's the former. In a recent web video with Norris, he deadpanned to the action-movie hero: "You've got to realize that as soon as your endorsement came out, everything in the campaign changed... We had people who suddenly said, 'He's a serious candidate.' And then there were those who were just flat-out afraid not to support me anymore.")
Taking a longer and slightly more serious view, one could argue that this cycle's extended nominating process made the recent dash to the front of the pack by Huckabee on the right and Barack Obama on the left inevitable. There is only so much that voters want to hear (and reporters want to write) about the same people holding the same spots in a horse race. And, with less than a month to go before the Iowa caucuses, a large number of voters who (perhaps wisely) have ignored the carnival of campaign coverage for the last 11 months are now just tuning in, while another large group is just getting serious in thinking about which candidate really matches their values and beliefs, a recipe for come-from-behind victories.
Still: Huckabee? The guy is a creationist who sincerely believes the earth is only 6,000 years old.
Actually, this fact points at the most persuasive explanation for his rise. Almost unbelievably, Huckabee is the only classic Christian conservative in the Republican lineup, a former Baptist minister with a compelling redemption story. After being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes in 2003 and told his excessive weight was threatening his life, Huckabee quickly lost 110 pounds, became a champion of healthy living, and wrote a book called Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork. Americans, and especially religious conservatives, gobble up redemption stories—ever heard the one about the recovering alcoholic who became born again, and then governor of Texas, and then president of the United States?
Also, as the title of Huckabee's book suggests, he has a well-developed sense of humor and no problem turning it on himself. In part because of this, he's been the only man onstage at the Republican debates to exude a genuine sense of humility. All of which makes him extremely likeable—so likeable, in fact, that liberal Rolling Stone magazine recently published a gushing Huckabee profile in which the author, Matt Taibbi, complained of almost having his brain snatched by Huckabee's charm before he did some research and realized the candidate is "full-blown nuts, a Christian goofball of the highest order."
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At the same time, over on the Democratic side, Obama is morphing from alleged wimp to all-around all-star, and beating Hillary Clinton in at least one recent Iowa poll. Again, the politics of peaking too early, and the length of the nominating process, are probably at play here—at least in part. Obama was a muted presence for much of the year, but conspicuously turned it on just as Democrats and political writers were tiring of the Clinton coronation narrative.
An Obama win in Iowa would be a game changer, and his upcoming appearance in that state on December 8 with Oprah Winfrey will only add to his momentum. The question is whether it will be enough to really beat Clinton, who has dropped only slightly in the polls. Plus, there's enough time before the Iowa caucuses for another conventional-wisdom frontrunner to be dethroned.
In the meantime, Seattle's legions of Obama fans will soon have another chance to cheer their man on. After stumping in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina with Oprah on December 8 and 9, Obama will arrive in Seattle on December 11 for two public fundraisers, one at the Bell Harbor Convention Center and the other at the Showbox Sodo for members of "Generation Obama."
And that's you, supposedly.