Huckabee Gains Ground in Iowa

Recent polls show former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in a statistical dead heat with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Iowa. Huckabee's surge of support comes despite a significant fundraising disadvantage. Can Huckabee's dark-horse campaign translate success in Iowa into other primary gains?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to Iowa presidential politics and the surprising rising fortunes of Republican Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll shows Huckabee in a statistical dead heat there with Mitt Romney. The same poll in July showed him trailing by double digits. Huckabee has also unveiled two TV ads in Iowa. The first takes a tongue-in-cheek, get-tough approach.

(Soundbite of Mike Huckabee's campaign ad)

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican, Presidential Candidate; Former Arkansas Governor): My plan to secure the border? Two words: Chuck Norris.

BLOCK: And the second released yesterday highlights Huckabee's Baptist roots.

(Soundbite of Mike Huckabee's campaign ad)

Mr. HUCKABEE: Faith doesn't just influence me, it really defines me. I don't have to wake up every day wondering what do I need to believe.

Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics, not now, not ever.

BLOCK: NPR's David Greene joins us from Mike Huckabee's Iowa headquarters in Des Moines. And David, first of all, these two ads, what are people there are saying about how they're going over?

DAVID GREENE: Well, they seem to be popular. And actually Mike Huckabee himself did a conference call with reporters and he said he had a lot of fun with that Chuck Norris ad. And, you know, he acknowledges it was not the most prestigious endorsement in the world, but he said that the strategy here was to go after, especially, 18- to 30-year-olds. Get them excited. Get them watching the ad. You know, some of them on YouTube. Get them to go to the Mike Huckabee Web site and generate excitement. You know, this is a candidate who is a major disadvantage compared to his competitors with fundraising. So what his staff tells me is he has to find some innovative ways to draw some attention to him.

BLOCK: And two very different sides of Mike Huckabee in those two ads. Who are these new Mike Huckabee converts, do you think?

GREENE: You know, they are a lot of evangelical Christians, Melissa, especially in Iowa. There are people who were going to be supporting Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator who was running and that is very conservative, but he dropped out of the race. There are people want a consistent candidate on issues like abortion and gun rights and they hadn't really seen that in some of the major candidates, and so they seem to be, at this point, being drawn to a person like Mike Huckabee. So that's a big reason. But his staff said it's much more than that.

BLOCK: I understand, you spoke earlier today with Mike Huckabee's campaign director in Iowa who is just back from vacation in Costa Rica - great timing for a vacation.

GREENE: Yeah, a little strange. His campaign manager here in Iowa is Eric Woolson. And he's a big fan of snake-watching. And there were some reports in the national media that this was an indication of what a huge surprise Mike Huckabee's success has been, that his Iowa campaign manager was basically out of town over Thanksgiving. What Eric Woolson told me was that, you know, this was a long-planned trip. And the caucuses had been scheduled not to be January 3rd, but expected to be much later, so he thought he was going to have more time. He also said he needed the break.

But still, a lot of speculations that perhaps he didn't think Mike Huckabee would be doing this well.

BLOCK: Now, a lot of unknown still, though, about the Mike Huckabee campaign. One would be, can he translate the surge of support in Iowa into dollars and can it translate anywhere besides Iowa?

GREENE: Two very important questions, Melissa. And, and the first, you know, his campaign manager is saying that Mike Huckabee's the best closer. He's not in the state right now. I'm in his campaign headquarters. Mike Huckabee has been elsewhere. He's had to spend a lot of precious time in states like Texas and states like Ohio - states that aren't as important as Iowa in terms of getting voters, but are important to him in terms of raising money. Now, he does say he's going to basically live in Iowa for the month of December after he makes a stop in New Hampshire later this week.

But even if he comes to Iowa and finishes well, you know, first, second, third - the campaign says that they want him to finish in the top three - can he translate that into votes in places like New Hampshire, where he hasn't been moving in the polls? He hasn't been moving in the polls nationally either. So what will momentum from Iowa mean to Mike Huckabee? That's a big question.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's David Greene, speaking with us from Mike Huckabee's Iowa headquarters in Des Moines. David, thanks very much.

GREENE: My pleasure, Melissa.

SIEGEL: NPR and Iowa Public Radio will host a Democratic presidential debate on December 4th. You can be part of it by posting questions for the candidates at npr.org/debate. We'll use some of your questions on the air.

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