Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Mike Huckabee Show

On Thursday, at long last, the Iowa caucuses begin. That daylong process starts the first official voting of the 2008 presidential campaign. The Republican candidates, eager to seal their respective deals with the citizens, are planning late-night/early morning vigils to get that last undecided voter. But where Mitt Romney, John McCain and some of the others in the thinning Republican pack are seen out there on the streets, one of their number will get in a little late.

Mike Huckabee’s on the “Tonight Show,” tonight out in L.A., instead of haunting the precincts of Sioux City. Is this a masterstroke or a bone-headed campaign move? You be the judge (along with everybody in Iowa).

When the former Arkansas governor announced the decision to appear with Jay Leno earlier in the day, it spread through the campaign like a grass fire in Malibu. Romney had nothing but scorn for the move — not surprising since Huckabee is the only real challenger to a Romney win in Iowa (not surprising since Rudy Giuliani has opted to keep his powder dry for the Florida primary, and everyone else finishes further back in the pack).

Huck’s move had its perils. To make the “Tonight Show” appearance at NBC’s Burbank studios, he had to cross the picket lines of the still-striking members of the Writers Guild of America — the thousands of film and television writers whose action in November is continuing with no end in sight. In a statement, the Huckabee campaign said the candidate had agreed to appear on “Tonight” "after he was assured that no replacement writers were being used in the show's production."

But to watch Huckabee joisting with Leno is to witness someone who didn’t need any writers working on his behalf. Looking relaxed and rested, Huckabee talked with Leno, fielding questions about his campaign expectations, and his celebrated journey from “triple-wide” Arkansas governor to height-to-weight-proportionate champion of exercise and a healthy diet.

LENO: This is what I find fascinating about American politics. I mean, I kind of follow this kind of stuff. So I've known who you are for a while, but you literally, in the last couple of months, have come from nowhere with hardly any money. Explain how this happened.

HUCKABEE: I'm just trying to keep from going back to nowhere as fast as I can. …

LENO: … You lost quite a bit of weight. How much weight did you lose?

HUCKABEE: About 110 pounds.

LENO: Congratulations on that. What was your secret?

HUCKABEE: The legislature kept eating my lunch every day.

At one point, Leno asked Huck why his campaign was doing so well.

"People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off," Huckabee said, to hearty applause.

And Huckabee isn’t afraid to give props where due. Speaking of another GOP hopeful, John McCain, Huckabee said “John McCain may be a rival of mine in the presidential race, but I have nothing but respect for him. He's a great American hero.”

With the ability to think and speak in the soundbite-brief context of modern communication, and with a winningly self-deprecating sense of himself and the hubbub of a presidential campaign, the man is a natural. At one raw level, at least, Republican prayers have been answered. The GOP leadership has run around, hair on fire for the last six months, asking “where’s the next Ronald Reagan? We need another Ronald Reagan!” Purely from a standpoint of a candidate with an innate ability to connect with an audience, capably use humor and a populist perspective, the GOP could do worse than Mike Huckabee.

But it’s not enough for the American Spectator’s Quin Hilyer: “Huckabee's bizarre propensity for letting criminals return early to freedom, combined with his utter cluelessness about foreign policy, also means that he would get absolutely crushed by the Democrats in a general election contest,” Hilyer says on the Spectator Web site.

None of which may matter to the folks in Iowa. In the town of Sergeant Bluff, for example, Huckabee supporter Bob Dunker told Time magazine that he didn't mind that Huckabee was going to California.

"I'm thinking it's OK for him to get national exposure, because when you don't have money, I think you need to tell your story to America any way you can," Dunker said. "Hey, when he can be here at 9 o'clock on New Year's Day talking to us, he can go wherever he wants tomorrow. I'm sure he'll be back in Iowa Thursday."

Bob Dunker understands what TV really is. Television – and especially late-night television – has become the new bully pulpit, the great equalizer for the campaign with the marginal media spend, one that politicians have effectively used in the past. In August 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the millionaire actor and pop-culture action figure, used late-night TV (another “Tonight” appearance) to launch his candidacy for the governorship of California. Schwarzenegger handily defeated the relentlessly buttoned-down incumbent mannequin Gray Davis that October.

Huckabee understands the medium, and tonight proved it with a solid performance as a Leno foil (not always easy duty) and, between the commercial breaks, making an equally strong showing behind the bass, laying down the bottom for the Tonight Show Band. Huck was good too! The reactions from bandleader Kevin Eubanks and his crew suggested they were pleasantly surprised — this mutha can play! With that impromptu sitting in, Huckabee gained comparison to the beneficiary of another memorable late-night TV moment: in June 1992 on route to his first victory as president, Bill Clinton sat in with the band on the “Arsenio Hall Show,” playing the saxophone (with Ray-Bans smartly in place, no less).

“That appearance rewrote the rules of decorum for presidential aspirants; late-night talk shows were suddenly a viable, even hot, avenue for political appearances,” we wrote on in March 2004.

All of this has been so far lost on Romney and any other GOP hopefuls — the same people who no doubt took up booth space in the diners and delis of Iowa tonight, the ones who’ll line up outside the factory gates in the morning, begging one more time for the undecideds to vote for them.

For Iowa citizens sick unto death of candidates lurking like vultures in their favorite places, Huckabee’s leap to the airwaves may be that distinctively refreshing move – an indication that Huckabee’s presidentially swinging for the fences when all around him are still playing small-ball. They're called style points, folks, and they can yield big hairy dividends. Just ask Bill Clinton or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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