Huckabee Finally Commands Attention

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee suddenly finds himself in the media's spotlight. He has hovered just below the media radar and had not been taken seriously for the GOP presidential nomination. But his lead in one Iowa poll changes that.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You heard Mr. Murphy mentioned Mike Huckabee, who's had a surprising candidacy so far. He comes from Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope, Arkansas and likes to joke: give Hope a second chance. Many people in the media did not give him any chance until now.

NPR's David Folkenflik explains why that's changed.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: For the longest time, Mike Huckabee, as seen by the media, was a kind of caricature - the former Arkansas governor who is a prominent evangelical.

Unidentified Man: You and two of your colleagues indicated that you do not believe in evolution. You're an ordained minister. What do you believe is...

FOLKENFLIK: The governor who was morbidly obese but shed 110 pounds.

Unidentified Woman: I have to ask you the question everyone will be dying to hear your answer to, and that is you're incredible weight loss.

FOLKENFLIK: The slender politician with a talent for punch lines.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican Presidential Candidate): We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop, and it's high time...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FOLKENFLIK: And the guy fronted a rock band too.

Mr. HUCKABEE: For all of you in New Hampshire, "Free Bird."

Unidentified Man: Free Bird, yeah!

(Soundbite of music)

FOLKENFLIK: In some, until pretty recently the media saw Mike Huckabee as the funny, skinny evangelical dude who played passable covers of hits from the 1970s - more or less.

Mr. HOWARD FINEMAN (Columnist, Newsweek): I would have described him back then as an interesting curiosity more than a serious contender for the Republican nomination.

FOLKENFLIK: If anyone represents mainstream media, it's Newsweek columnist and MSNBC pundit Howard Fineman.

Mr. FINEMAN: As a Southerner, as an evangelical Christian who is running on that theme, he was all chance back then, not reality.

FOLKENFLIK: He hadn't raised a lot of money or built up a big campaign organization. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were the heavyweights; Fred Thompson the alternative.

Until last week, according to TV news consultant Andrew Tindell, the network's three evening newscasts, reaching a combined 26 million or so Americans each night, had done a grand total of two stories on Huckabee this year. And then the tide shifted. A lot has been happening behind the scenes, at conferences of evangelical leaders and smaller gatherings where Huckabee connected with conservative voters.

ABC News senior political correspondent Jake Tapper says he sensed something was brewing some weeks ago.

Mr. JAKE TAPPER (ABC News): And the moment that Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney started assailing Mike Huckabee, when he was getting nary a mentioned on network news and certainly not on the front page of any major newspaper, that's when you knew he was really rising in the polls because they felt the need to attack him.

FOLKENFLIK: Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote a favorable piece in October in The New York Times. Newsweek published a long profile, and then things tangibly clicked last week. This from "Good Morning America."

Ms. DIANE SAWYER (Host, "Good Morning America"): A new poll and a major shake-up in the Republican primary race, a new ABC News-Washington Post poll showing dark horse Mike Huckabee is surging in Iowa. By the margin of error, he's at a statistical dead heat with the frontrunner, Mitt Romney.

FOLKENFLIK: In the week since, Huckabee has gotten more mentions on the nation's three cable news stations than he received in the previous three weeks combined, and got on all three network newscasts.

Newsweek's Howard Fineman.

Mr. FINEMAN: After everybody's got done writing the gee whiz, look, there's Mike Huckabee's story, then they're going to start looking at his record seriously, and that's the phase we're about to enter in his campaign.

FOLKENFLIK: There are a lot of wrinkles to Huckabee's record. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Online and the Los Angeles Times last week called Huckabee a right wing progressive, and he doesn't mean that as a compliment.

Mr. JONAH GOLDBERG (National Review Online): Simply because someone is pro-life and is against gay marriage, that doesn't give him a free pass to be against free trade or for small government or for limited taxes.

FOLKENFLIK: Conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote that Huckabee was a global-warming-fighting, tax-hiking, big-government type who should make real conservatives shutter.

ABC's Jake Tapper says that's what happens when you migrate from second tier to the top ranks.

Mr. TAPPER: It earns you an opportunity and it earns you a tremendous amount of scrutiny that you might not be prepared for.

FOLKENFLIK: Huckabee should get ready for his close-up. A second poll confirms the dead heat in Iowa, and yet another shows him moving into second place in Florida as well.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

INSKEEP: So the Republicans debate today, and the Democrats will debate next week. NPR and Iowa Public Radio host a Democratic debate on December 4th, and 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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