GOP Presidential Candidate Huckabee Gets Boost

Mike Huckabee enjoys the best week of his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination: a bump in poll numbers in Iowa and a big spike in online fundraising.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to a contest of a different kind: Mike Huckabee has just had the best week yet in his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He's seen a bump in his poll numbers in Iowa, where he got a standing ovation at a state GOP dinner over the weekend. Better yet for the candidate, there was a big spike in his online fundraising.

NPR's Audie Cornish has been with Huckabee on the campaign trail.

AUDIE CORNISH: Mike Huckabee has stayed alive in the GOP presidential race because of supporters like Pastor Scott Wilson of Mason City, Iowa.

Pastor SCOTT WILSON (Huckabee Supporter): Mike Huckabee is my man. His values are my values. And I think he does a great job of reflecting middle America. You know, the evangelical Christian is going to very comfortable with Mike Huckabee.

CORNISH: And as the former minister and governor has inched up in the polls, other Iowa Republicans like Beverly Denny(ph) of Waterloo are giving him a second look.

Ms. BEVERLY DENNY(ph) (Iowa Resident): I suppose at first it was, you know, we want, you know, we want to get somebody in there that's going to win the opponent. So that's kind of the philosophy. And then you realize it doesn't matter; what matters is the person. And that he's gaining momentum.

CORNISH: Both Wilson and Denney were among the several hundred who showed up at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa to hear Huckabee play base guitar with his band, Capital Offense. The former Arkansas governor sports an American flag guitar strap and can scrunch his shoulders, pout and nod with the best of them. He doesn't sing but he does emcee, which gives him a chance to pitch the crowd.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): You're not just a part of a campaign that is struggling; you're a part of a campaign that is on fire and some of it is because some people gave us what we're going to sing about right now.

CORNISH: The tune: the old '50s hit "Money." The occasion: Huckabee announced that he'd raised more money online in the last week than he had all year - thanks to a second-place finish in the straw poll of Christian voters sponsored by the Family Research Council. And that $700,000 is almost as much as he raised in the whole third quarter.

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) The best things in life are free, but you can keep them for the birds and bees. Just give me money. That's it I want. That's what I want.

CORNISH: Getting the money to back up the buzz is key for candidates like Huckabee, says Drake University Professor Dennis Goldford.

Dr. DENNIS GOLDFORD (Drake University): He's caught in that trap of the electability question. You're not getting much money because we don't think you're electable, but we don't think you're electable because you're not getting much money. Huckabee has got to break out of that vicious circle.

CORNISH: Which means impressing people at the Iowa State party's annual Ronald Reagan Dinner was critical. Huckabee got his chance at that event Saturday night when the GOP's best-known presidential candidates - Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain - did not attend. So undecided Republican activists could give the once-over to candidates like Huckabee trying to break out of the pack and win over people like Iowa Christian Alliance Leader Steve Scheffler.

Mr. STEVE SCHEFFLER (President, Iowa Christian Alliance): I mean, as far as going a long distance, I think he has a couple big challenges. He has to, you know, have the ample money to go the long distance beyond Iowa, you know, if it's a realistic scenario after Iowa, you're going to have to have a lot of money to run TV ads simultaneously. So I think he's - he has a good message that resonates with a lot of people, but he's got a couple of challenges in terms of, you know, staff and money.

CORNISH: Paul Ellington of the Republican political action committee GOPAC says that he admires Huckabee's resourcefulness in the face of better finance rivals. But Ellington says these days the Arkansas governor isn't really being thought of as a top-of-the-ticket candidate.

Mr. PAUL ELLINGTON (President, GOPAC): Well, he's considered to be first tier, but he's also considered to be first choice as number two on the ticket from a lot of people. I mean, in my job I travel the country a lot and everybody, when you ask them their shortlist on vice president, he's always the first one mentioned.

CORNISH: But to make that happen, Huckabee needs to stick around a while. He needs money to buy ads and airtime and to beef up his ground troops in Iowa and elsewhere. Right now, he has eight paid staff in Iowa, four in other early states.

Mr. HUCKABEE: What we've been waiting for that's now beginning to happen is this sense of people finally saying, okay, we've been shopping around; wait a minute, here is a guy running. This is the guy that believes what we believe. He stands for what we stand for.

CORNISH: And Huckabee says he's already beat the expectations of many who thought he'd have dropped out by now. And with just about two months to go to the Iowa caucuses, he is making his move just in time.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa.

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First Race Teaches Huckabee to Trust His Instincts

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee i i

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, featured here at a 2002 press conference before his dramatic weight loss, felt the sting of defeat early in his political career. Spencer Tirey/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Tirey/AP
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, featured here at a 2002 press conference before his dramatic weight loss, felt the sting of defeat early in his political career.

Spencer Tirey/AP

Huckabee Profile

Read about Mike Huckabee's political career and his prospects as a presidential candidate.

Huckabee bio box

After losing a bid for U.S. Senate in 1992, Mike Huckabee vowed that he would never again heed campaign advice that went against his instincts. Huckabee, a Baptist minister at the time, challenged Sen. Dale Bumpers, a liberal Democrat, but was soundly defeated after a campaign strategy suggested by political consultants backfired.

At that time, more than one-fifth of Arkansas voters were members of the Southern Baptist church. And it was as head of the state Baptist convention that Huckabee decided to take on Bumpers, one of Arkansas' most popular politicians. Bumpers was more than just popular. The folksy three-term senator and former governor had reached political icon status.

But Bumpers was also liberal. In running for the Senate, Huckabee thought Arkansas voters were ready for a change. Looking back now, he says he was wrong.

"It was David goes against Goliath, and this time David forgot to put the rock in his sling," Huckabee said.

With little state-party organization to draw on, Huckabee hired political consultants with national expertise. But Bumpers easily defeated Huckabee after a nasty campaign that featured negative ads and character attacks.

"Huckabee ran what we would call kind of a cookie-cutter right-wing campaign against Bumpers, attacking him, among other things, for his support for the National Endowment for the Arts which he said, in effect, that Bumpers was supporting pornography," said Hoyt Purvis, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.

Bumpers became indignant and ran ads countering the charge; Arkansans agreed.

"People in Arkansas felt like they knew Dale Bumpers and that Dale Bumpers was not a pornographer or not somebody who supported pornography and in this case, Huckabee had kind of gone over the line," Purvis said.

Huckabee says the experience taught him a lesson about following the advice of outside political consultants.

"You need to go with your own gut instincts and not let people around you push you into things, particularly if they're consultants, because when the campaign's over, they disappear," Huckabee said.

'Not Mad at Anybody'

One year after that decisive defeat, Huckabee learned another lesson about the unpredictability of politics.

In '92, the same year Huckabee lost his Senate campaign, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency. Clinton's lieutenant governor, Jim Guy Tucker, took over as governor. Huckabee was recruited by Republicans to run for the lieutenant governor's seat in a special election and won.

And then, three years later, the unexpected happened again. Gov. Tucker was indicted and convicted in the Whitewater scandal and forced to resign. Huckabee suddenly was governor, only the fourth Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction in a state dominated by Democrats.

Rex Nelson, Huckabee's communications director when he was governor, said that Huckabee's harshest criticism came not from Democrats, but from very conservative Republicans, especially over his contentious consolidation plan that would shut down many rural schools.

Huckabee says he takes a different approach.

"I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anybody about it. I've learned that you don't have to give up your own convictions," Huckabee said. "But you do need to be willing to have an open mind, spirit and heart toward people who are completely different from you."

In August, Huckabee was ranked second in the Iowa Republican straw poll. Polls in Iowa now show him at the top of the second-tier candidates — behind Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. Before running for president, the conservative Huckabee was best known as one of two famous governors from Hope, Ark. — the one who lost 110 pounds.

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