Huckabee Returns to Iowa for Final Push

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the new Republican front-runner in Iowa, returns to the Hawkeye State in advance of the Jan. 3 caucuses. He is the first Republican candidate to do so. New polls show that he is in a fight there with Mitt Romney as other candidates fall back.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

One day after the Christmas hiatus, the presidential candidates are back at it in Iowa. The caucuses are just over a week away. And we'll hear from several parts of the state in this part of the program. Among Republicans, polls show former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as the leading candidates. And early this morning, Huckabee was the first Republican to return to the campaign trail. Well, not the trail exactly. He trudged across frozen fields on a pheasant hunt with a flock of reporters in tow, of course.

And NPR's Ina Jaffe was one of them.

INA JAFFE: There are a lot of issues in the campaign, a lot of questions reporters could ask Mike Huckabee. But as we followed him through the ice crusted fields, the first thing everyone wanted to know was, what does hunting pheasants have to do with running for president?

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican; Former Governor of Arkansas): It has everything to do with running for president because that way you prove that you can shoot, and if somebody really messes with you with negative campaign ads, they just need to be prepared.

JAFFE: The allegedly negative ads have come from Mitt Romney's campaign. They started this month after Romney saw Huckabee demolish what had been his safe lead here. Not that the shotgun-toting Huckabee would identify his political target.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Oh, I have mentioned nobody's name. I'm just talking about, you know, taking care of business.

JAFEE: This is vintage Mike Huckabee, take a verbal shot at an opponent or threaten a real one, and still seem to be kidding around. He's gone from nobody to frontrunner in Iowa on the strength of his undeniable sense of humor and his unassailable credentials as an ordained Baptist minister and bonafide evangelical. His image is he's a guy who's going to accentuate the positive, not like that unnamed other guy.

Mr. HUCKABEE: What he's been focused on is telling people why I shouldn't be president. I've been focused on telling people why I should be.

JAFFE: What Huckabee calls a negative ad, the Romney campaign calls a contrast ad. Comparing the two candidates' positions on, say, immigration or crime as in this one.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man: The difference? Romney got tough on drugs like meth. He never pardoned a single criminal. And Mike Huckabee? He granted 1,033 pardons and commutations including 12 convicted murderers. Huckabee granted more clemencies than the previous three governors combined, even reduced penalties for manufacturing methamphetamine.

JAFFE: There have also been moments when Romney himself hits, taking after his Iowa challenger as he did earlier this month on "Meet the Press" telling NBC's Tim Russert that Huckabee owes President Bush an apology for what he wrote about him in the journal Foreign Affairs.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Former Massachusetts Governor): It's very different to point out the mistakes that have been made. And the president has pointed out the mistakes as well. And then, to say that the Bush administration, our president, is arrogant with a bunker mentality, that's a completely different statement for which Mike Huckabee owes the president an apology.

JAFFE: If any of these really bothers Mike Huckabee, well, he could go take it out on the birds.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

JAFFE: After Huckabee and his hunting party brought down three pheasants in four attempts, he then rejoined reporters for a little while showing off the beautiful and dead birds along with another vintage Huckabee clip(ph).

Mr. HUCKABEE: These three birds all said they would not vote for me on caucus night. Do you see what happened to it? Now, that one that flew away, we saw a Huckabee button on his rear end. And so we knew not to take him.

JAFFE: That's not negative campaigning joked Huckabee. It just means if you vote for me, you live.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Des Moines.

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