This, the first half of Huckabee’s presentation, is extremely impressive. It makes you wish that his prodigious talent could be marshaled for the forces of good. If only his gut instincts for bread-and-butter middle-class concerns were matched with better policy instincts and a more serious approach to policy.
After all this, Huckabee goes into defensive mode. Because he hasn’t had the resources to respond to Romney’s ads in kind, he has to do it himself in person so it will be picked up by the free media. He’s good at this too. Huckabee says hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent saying he’s a bum, when his wife, he promises, “will tell you for free, he’s a bum.” Only Huckabee could make the pardons and commutations controversy actually work for him with an audience, by highlighting a sympathetic petition for a pardon that Romney denied as governor, and contrasting it with one that he granted as governor of Arkansas.
But in the end, Huckabee is being forced to talk about things he wouldn’t otherwise. And his positive message is dented when he harshly criticizes Romney for not being positive too. In fact, for the candidate supposedly running only on why he should be president, not why the others shouldn’t, Huckabee blasts Romney in the harshest terms. He warns a couple of times over that “when [Romney] becomes president, he won’t start becoming honest if he was dishonest getting there.”
Huckabee concludes with a not-too-subtle class contrast with Romney. He “did not grow up in privilege,” and prior to him, no one in his family graduated from high school. In another Edwards touch, he talks of how his father made his living by lifting heavy things. By voting for Huckabee, people will, in effect, vindicate the American dream and the political process. Voters will show that elections are not about “who can run clever ads,” and prove wrong all those who say “no one being out-spent 20-1 can be elected.” Ultimately, it’s a very Huck-centric message, based on biography and character.
For Huckabee, change is voting for the underdog.
I catch the second half of a Mitt Romney event an hour-and-half away in Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s held in a room in a community-center-type building. About 100 people are sitting in neatly lined up chairs, like a seminar room — an appropriate setting for the buttoned-up Romney operation.
Romney’s argument is that he’s best suited to bring change because he’s “dealt [his] whole life with change.” He also criticizes partisanship in Washington, saying that his wife Ann compares it to people about to go over a waterfall in a canoe, who, instead of paddling, argue with one another. Romney says he wants “to strengthen the American people and change Washington.”
He talks about families, but in a different way than Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor tries to earn credibility on family matters by talking about economic struggle — while Romney gets it by implicitly invoking the cohesiveness of his family and his devotion as a father. In a very non-Huckabee touch, he talks of his father being the head of a car company, a three-term governor, a presidential candidate, and Cabinet member. But his dad’s proudest accomplishment was how he raised his four kids. Romney’s message is that he doesn’t share his listeners’ economic background, but he shares their values.