I remember following Mike Huckabee around the Iowa State Fair, last August, when he wasn’t exactly attracting big crowds. On a terribly hot day, Huckabee played second fiddle to Kristy Demner, the Iowa Holstein Princess, as she addressed a crowd at the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters on the state fairgrounds. Huckabee got to say a few words after Demner finished, but few were listening.
Later, Huckabee walked — pretty much unnoticed — to the WHO Radio temporary studio, where one of his early boosters, a talk radio host named Steve Deace, gave Huckabee a lot of time on his program. On the show, Huckabee explained that he didn’t have the money to rent buses and give people rides to the Iowa Republican Straw Poll, coming up the next day in Ames. So he urged listeners to accept free rides from other candidates and once in Ames — on Mitt Romney’s or Sam Brownback’s dime — to vote for Mike Huckabee.
They did. Huckabee came in a surprise second in the poll, knocking Brownback out of the race, diminishing Romney’s victory, and setting up all that was to come in the Huckabee campaign. That evening, as dusk fell on all the tents and bandstands and barbecue stands in Ames, Huckabee was ecstatic. “For all practical purposes, we won the Iowa Straw Poll,” he told reporters. “No one was even saying we would come in second. Everybody was saying Huckabee may get fourth, maybe if he’s really lucky he’ll get third. You’ve got to admit, for what we had to work with and the resources we had, for us to surge, coming in second, is the victory, it is the story.”
I had come to Iowa to do a piece on Huckabee, and I wouldn’t have had much to work with if he had finished third and dropped out. As it happened, though, I went back to Washington with a good story. I wrote that Huckabee’s skills as a speaker were dazzling and that his economic record as governor of Arkansas was defensible, even though it was under heavy attack from the Club for Growth. On foreign policy, I wrote that Huckabee was quite weak, and I also suggested he might have trouble with the case of Wayne Dumond, a convicted rapist whose release from prison Huckabee supported, only to see Dumond commit murder once free.
I thought it was a mixed assessment of Huckabee’s record. But the cover of National Review featured an appealing photo of Huckabee playing bass with his band. If you’re Mike Huckabee, struggling to make a mark on the GOP race, what’s not to like? The campaign loved it and asked NR if they could buy 1,000 copies.
It wasn’t long before Huckabee began an astonishing ride up the polls in Iowa. If you look back at the graph of the Iowa race on the RealClearPolitics average of polls, you’ll see Huckabee come out of nowhere in late summer, climb through September and October and November and finally, in December, take a ten-point lead over Romney, far ahead of the rest of the field. At that point, as candidates sometimes do, Huckabee seemed to have briefly exempted himself from the law of gravity. And all before any voters or caucus-goers had spoken.
Shortly afterward, however, gravity reasserted itself. Huckabee began to slip in the polls, and for a while it seemed like he might lose Iowa to Romney. But Huckabee got himself back on track, prevailed, and did serious damage to Romney’s win-early strategy.
On the night before the caucuses, I dropped by Huckabee’s campaign headquarters on Sixth Avenue in downtown Des Moines. The scene was part phone bank and part day-care center, as supporters who volunteered to make calls for Huckabee brought their children, who played games while their parents worked the phone lists. Everyone was a volunteer, of course; Huckabee had no money to pay them.
That was the key to Huckabee’s win in Iowa. Romney was paying people left and right; he had a huge paid staff in the state. Huckabee was receiving the help of volunteers who made their own campaign materials for him and made sure they were distributed; who worked phone banks; who flocked to the caucuses. In the end, the battle in Iowa, which many observers thought would be about organization, was really about intensity, and Huckabee had it.
But he couldn’t transfer it to the other early states, and a long losing streak followed. Big primaries — New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, Florida — came and went without Huckabee victories. Later, there were wins in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Kansas. But never, after the Iowa glow faded, did Huckabee seriously challenge for the Republican nomination.
There were a lot of reasons. Certainly Huckabee managed to irritate two legs of the Republican three-legged stool, alienating economic and national-security conservatives while relying disproportionately on the support of social conservatives. But in some ways, the answer was much simpler than that.
This just wasn’t Huckabee’s year, at least not in the Republican primaries. As governor, he was deeply concerned with issues like health care and education, and not so concerned with Iraq and national security. When I interviewed him in Iowa, just before the straw poll, he seemed frustrated by the Republican emphasis on the war. Like the other candidates, he supported President Bush’s troop surge, but he wasn’t sure there was much more to talk about.
He was seldom asked about Iraq at his campaign appearances, Huckabee told me, and he couldn’t figure out why it dominated debates. “Among the Republican candidates, there’s really very little separation about Iraq, with the exception of Ron Paul,” he said. “And yet, we still go back through it over and over and over again, and I just never quite understood why we continued to plow the same ground when there were so many topics we never touched. Do you realize that in four debates we never had a single question on education? Not one. And two on health care, that I can recall.”
On those rare occasions when the topics came up in debate, Huckabee did very well. But as time went on, the GOP race became more and more about who would be the best commander-in-chief, and John McCain had that one wrapped up. There was no way Huckabee could compete, whatever his political gifts.
But who knows what will happen next time around? If there is a contested GOP race in 2012, Huckabee will almost certainly be there. He’ll be a stronger candidate if he spends the next few years studying up and filling the gaps in his knowledge. But the bottom line is that he’s a dazzlingly talented politician in a party that is not exactly full of dazzlingly talented politicians. You’ll see him again.
Editor’s note: A brief version of this story also appeared today in The Hill.