Pastor-Populist Mike Huckabee

How many conservative Christian politicians go on Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show" without being sliced and diced? Maybe one — and an intriguing part of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential candidacy is his ability to get host Jon Stewart eating out of his hand.

Last month Stewart accusingly said his audience fears a "conservative, evangelical Republican." Huckabee responded, "I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at everybody. I’m pro-life, but we have to be concerned about a child’s entire life." He then matched Stewart yuk for yuk, declaring that had he worked in partisan ways with an overwhelming Democratic legislature, "we couldn’t have passed gas in the House chamber."

Stewart, who dines on double entendres, said in his overly solemn, self-mocking way, "I don’t care for that type of humor." Huckabee responded with a grin, "I noticed." He connects better with the Stewart generation than with the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth: The former gave Huckabee an "F" for spending and tax policy in 2006, and the latter dinged him as a "tax hiker" for, among other things, raising gas taxes.

Huckabee defends himself by saying that he responded to court demands for added educational funding and pushed for a gas tax raise because 80 percent of Arkansans want improved highways. But his willingness to consider tax increases reflects a populist impulse that could make or break his candidacy. He readily describes the sins of economic and political elites: "the greed of Wall Street, the corruption of K Street."

Huckabee talks about what America means for those like himself, who grew up where there "wasn’t a lot of money, wasn’t a lot of pedigree" — and sometimes sounds like his equally charming predecessor, Bill Clinton. Note the similarities: Both are from Hope, Ark.; both are past Boys State members who went on to chair the National Governors Association; both are musically inclined, with Clinton offering glissandos and growls on the saxophone and Huckabee playing bass guitar in the band Capitol Offense and both are Southern Baptists (with strikingly different theologies).

Their biggest commonality is their humble origin, which leads Huckabee to say of his background, "Some of us know what it’s like to start at the bottom of the ladder." But instead of descending into class warfare, Huckabee finishes his populist pitch by saying "where you finish is up to you." Huckabee is also the anti-Clinton in that reporters feel no need to do a bimbo watch with him: He and his wife Janet apparently have a strong marriage.

Huckabee’s story of personal change will wear well on afternoon talk shows. Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2003 and told his abundant heft threatened his heart, he lost 110 pounds and became so fit that he ran and completed four marathons in 2005 and 2006. His own story is now part of his political pitch: Individuals can eat less, exercise more, and in the process reduce health care costs that threaten personal and national budgets.

Huckabee talks about tough policy issues in a folksy way. When he and I recently spoke in Washington, he told how he had just flown there from the Little Rock airport, where the security guards know who he is — but he still had to take the coins from his pocket and the shoes from his feet "as if I was wearing a turban on my head and went by the name of Abdul."

Huckabee said he and other Americans don’t object to that process, and they want immigrants to be required also to enter through an orderly process rather than a porous border: That’s why a border barrier is essential. When that’s in place, a reasoned debate about entry can begin, because it’s clear that we "only have so many seats on the airplane."

Pundits count three or four seats on the GOP presidential campaign plane, and say they’re occupied by McCain, Giuliani, Romney and (maybe) Gingrich. Might there be one more?