This morning Mike Huckabee will appear at campaign events in Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa, and then, around noon, board a private jet for a destination not usually favored by front-runners on the eve of the Iowa caucuses: Burbank, California. There, he will tape an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and, after the show, hop back on the jet and head back to Iowa, planning to arrive by about 2 A.M. Thursday. His first event on Caucus Day will be at 8:30 A.M. in Burlington, and he’ll go straight through until the votes are counted in the evening.
It’s an unconventional last day in an unconventional campaign. But given that this will be both Leno’s first time back on The Tonight Show since the writer’s strike, as well as Huckabee’s last big TV appearance before the caucuses, the governor’s aides believe there will be great public interest. “It’s an incredible opportunity to talk to a lot of people, campaign manager Chip Saltsman told me last night, “and a lot of people in Iowa will be watching.” For a candidate who has been heavily outspent on television advertising by rival Mitt Romney, it’s a chance to appeal to many more people than could be reached during the two or three in-person appearances in Iowa that Huckabee will skip by flying to California.
It will also change the subject a bit. Team Huckabee is trying hard not to appear defensive about the governor’s somewhat odd performance in the last couple of days, a period dominated by his I’m-not-going-to-air-this-negative-ad-but-I-am-going-to-show-it-to-the-press news conference and, later, by a full day of complaining about Romney’s attacks. By the end of those 48 hours, Huckabee seemed in danger of channeling Bob Dole’s famous — and disastrous — “stop lying about my record” moment from 1988.
Saltsman told me that Huckabee had indeed planned to run the ad, had secured air time for it, and had prepared an information packet to go along with it — that he was, in other words, all ready to go. And then, Huckabee, with the assent of Saltsman and campaign chairman Ed Rollins, pulled back, judging the ad too negative. He was undoubtedly right. Of all the attack ads that might be made about Romney — ads showing video of his staunch defense of abortion rights, for example, or his distancing himself from Ronald Reagan — the ad Huckabee produced was surely the least effective and most potentially self-damaging. It began with Huckabee looking into the camera and saying, “I’m Mike Huckabee, and I approved this message because Iowans have a right to know the truth about Mitt Romney’s dishonest attacks on me…” Continuing with an air of grievance, Huckabee seemed more than anything else miffed that Romney had been mean to him. Why Huckabee even decided to show the ad to reporters is a mystery.
Some in the national media judged it a disaster, but coverage in Iowa has not been nearly as negative, and Huckabee’s aides see no ill effects. “A lot of that is Washington media-driven, because it’s not out here in Iowa,” Saltsman told me. “We’ve had huge crowds today.” Saltsman rejected the idea that Huckabee’s performance suggested that he had been rattled by Romney’s relentless attacks.
From its perspective, Team Romney sees in Huckabee an opponent who has stumbled badly in the last 48 hours. In the unaired ad, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told me, “Huckabee did what many Iowa voters reject, which was that he put his fingerprints on the gun. He delivered his own negative ad, and it was very personal in nature.” Romney’s own attack ads — Madden always calls them “contrast” ads — feature an unseen stern-voiced announcer and don’t show Romney himself saying anything negative. “Huckabee’s closing argument seems to be very volatile and hot tempered,” Madden said.
Of course, Romney’s entire performance in the last month has been a test of the conventional wisdom that Iowans don’t like negative campaigning and will punish those candidates who engage in it. Madden argues that Iowa voters “tend to be accepting of contrasts on issues that are substantive and important in the debate.” Romney has bet a lot on that idea, but there’s no guarantee he’s right. For all he knows, voters might care little about an ad that Mike Huckabee didn’t air and very much about ads that Romney did air thousands of times. And in any event, the Huckabee campaign is betting that by caucus time, people will be talking more about Huckabee on The Tonight Show than about a press conference that virtually no one saw.