- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2007

Mike Huckabee parlayed a Southern governor’s folksy charm, four outstanding debate performances and a populist economic message that sets him apart from the rest of the Republican presidential field into a second-place finish in last week’s Iowa presidential straw poll.

Now he hopes he can take the leap from also-ran to first-tier contender — and his campaign says they are already seeing the turn. He said his straw-poll showing translated into more than 1,000 new online donors in three days, and he has added fundraisers in 16 states over the next three months, trying to help his campaign finances catch up with his campaign message.

“There’s a new life in our campaign,” Mr. Huckabee, who served 10 years as Arkansas governor, told reporters yesterday.

That Mr. Huckabee has a knack for connecting with voters is obvious, but Rich Thau, a campaign communications consultant who is conducting focus groups on the debates, has measured it and says Mr. Huckabee was literally off the chart in one of his answers in last weekend’s debate.

Mr. Thau does dial-testing, in which voters constantly rate performances by turning a dial to indicate their approval of what a candidate is saying. He posts his results on his Web site, www.messagejury.com, and he says in last weekend’s debate, voters scored Mr. Huckabee’s blunt “Let’s get it done” answer on energy independence at a 98 out of 100, putting it in the realm of “motherhood and apple pie.”

“He has yet to deliver a dud response in any of the four GOP debates,” Mr. Thau said calling him the Ted Williams of the debates for combining consistency with his ability to hit a home run. “Huckabee has that ability to bring the entire issue down to a single sentence where people go, ‘Yeah, that makes sense to me.’ ”

Focus-group participants say Mr. Huckabee is “very genuine, they say he’s very well-spoken. He has a good sense of humor and is witty,” Mr. Thau said. “He is excellent in framing his answers and putting all of his answers in some sort of values-based frame, and it doesn’t matter the issue — he almost always says why it matters.”

On the campaign trail last week, Mr. Huckabee fired off one-liners to big and small audiences alike, used self-deprecation freely, and as a staunch pro-life advocate even managed to find common ground with a pro-choice voter who attended his town hall in Spencer, Iowa.

After a back-and-forth, the woman told Mr. Huckabee that while she wasn’t swayed, she was impressed with how well he justified himself: “I really appreciate that you can describe that.”

Mr. Huckabee, who says he was brought up in a household where next month’s rent was never guaranteed, also sets himself apart from the field with a clear populist message that even some Democratic strategists are starting to note as a potent political force.

“When I hear the headlines the economy is doing great, I know it is, from a macro sense,” Mr. Huckabee said. “But if you go out and talk with people who work on the floors of factories or you talk to waitresses who are doing their second job, and schoolteachers who have to work an extra job, you don’t hear quite the confidence about how great the economy’s doing.”

“That’s a sensitivity that a president better have, because there are a whole lot of people out there like that,” he said.

He calls for other countries to play with an “uncorked bat,” his folksy way of demanding they abide by the same trade and product-safety rules and regulations as the United States.

Mr. Huckabee has become an enthusiastic supporter of the Fair Tax, a national sales tax, to replace the current federal income tax, arguing it takes the government out of picking winners and losers through the tax code.

Mr. Huckabee’s biggest challenge will be to try to build a fundraising operation to match his wit. His first two quarters of fundraising lagged far behind almost every other campaign.

He will also have to fend off attacks over his economic message and his record as Arkansas governor. Those have already earned him attack ads from the Club for Growth, a conservative political organization that promotes free market policies and candidates.

The club ran ads against him in Iowa in the run-up to the straw poll, and yesterday attacked him for his populist message.

“Clever jokes and one-liners cannot paper over his long tax-and-spend record and hostility toward the free market,” said Pat Toomey, the club’s president.

Mr. Huckabee says as a governor, he’s sensitive to Washington stepping on states’ toes. He says he would “get them out of the Real ID process,” calling for a rollback of the law that tries to combat illegal immigration by setting federal standards for driver’s licenses.

He said the president should be more careful in calling up states’ National Guard units, and also said he would have been reluctant to support Congress in 2005 when it tried to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband battled her family to have her feeding tube removed.

“From a governmental standpoint, it troubles me when the Congress or any federal entity involves itself in something that clearly has historically been a state issue,” he said. But that doesn’t mean Florida officials were wrong to act, he said. “There were some complexities because you had a divided family.”



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