The Iowa Bounce

“People who wouldn’t return our calls last week” are calling Mike Huckabee’s campaign office to offer their help, the former Arkansas governor said in a roundtable interview with reporters yesterday.  Is Huckabee now a “first tier” candidate, in the mix behind Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney?  Hard to say, given that frontrunner Giuliani, limping McCain and the still-unannounced Fred Thompson all passed up the Iowa straw poll.  But Mike Huckabee is (and has to be) buoyed by the Iowa showing.   

Coming out of a stronger-than-expected second place finish in last weekend’s poll (Huckabee garnered 18.1% of the vote behind Mitt Romney — 31.6% — and above Sam Brownback, 15.3%) Huckabee is confident that he’s achieved first-tier status.

When the votes were tallied in the Iowa straw poll, “…we had a thousand more votes than we had purchased tickets for people,” former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said yesterday.

Huckabee wanted to talk about the effect of Iowa on his fundraising ability and staying power in the long run-up to the 2008 primaries.  And the run-up may not be all that long.  

Huckabee speculated that — with the states vying for bigger influence (and not wanting to be caught in the flood of what’s now absurdly called “super duper Tuesday”) — it’s entirely possible that the New Hampshire primary may be in pre-Thanksgiving November.  Which could make survival until the March primaries easier for candidates like Huckabee who — at least until this point — haven’t been able to raise nearly as much money as the frontrunners.  

Which means that they haven’t spent as much, either.  

Gov. Huckabee fairly revels in his frugality.  And — given his second-place finish in last weekend’s Iowa straw poll and miniscule (comparatively) expenditures — he has a right to.  

Huckabee said his Iowa campaign cost less than $150,000 overall (of which less than $90,000 was spent on the straw poll) and scored a good showing despite heavy expenditures (including a television ad campaign attaching him, which wasn’t countered by any Huckabee television time).  Romney and Brownback both spent considerably more.

The former Arkansas governor, adhering closely to The Gipper’s Eleventh Commandment (“never speak ill of a fellow Republican”) managed to criticize both former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback without descending into the minor-league fussing that Sens. Obama and Clinton have done of late.  It’s part of Huckabee’s idea of campaign fair play.  He said he wanted to shoot long three-pointers rather than have to elbow his competitors under the net.  

Asked several questions about competitors — even Democrats such as Obama — Huckabee said repeatedly that he’d like to give them a break.  Is that naïve?  Not for a guy who has managed to survive and thrive as a Republican in Arkansas.  

But can that same man defeat his heavyweight primary opponents and then be tough enough to go 15 rounds with Hillary Clinton?

I told Gov. Huckabee that having grown up in Mayor Giuliani’s city rather than Huckabee’s state (and like many journalists) I expected to see some blood on the canvas before this was over.  

He chuckled at that.  “You always want the other guy to draw first blood,” he said. “I won’t put the other guy’s blood on the canvas first.”  Can Huckabee allow the Clinton war machine to choose the time and place of battle, to draw first blood?  Can any Republican? Given the temperament of the Republican leaders, we will probably find out.   But first the Republicans have to sort out who’s the nominee.  Huckabee scored his points on frugality, timing and judgment.  Iowa big spender Mitt Romney took the first shot.

According to the Washington Post, Romney spent over $2 million on television ads, $200,000 on a political consultant, rented a fleet of air conditioned buses and paid sixty “super volunteers” between $500 and $1000 to “talk him up.”  

Without criticizing Romney by name, Huckabee said, “If you spend this much of your own money, imagine what would happen if you ever get hold of the taxpayers’ money. It’d just be brutal.” Sam Brownback, who finished a few points behind Huckabee also wasn’t hit by name.  Huckabee would only sing the praises of a National Review column which called for Brownback to drop out of the race.

Sen. Fred Thompson was the only one who Huckabee seemed to take on directly. One reporter asked him about Thompson’s chances having waited so long to get into the race.  Huckabee said, “The target is only in front of you so long,” adding, “…something’s gonna spook this deer and he’s gone.”  

Huckabee has graduated to the first tier of Republican candidates. He debates well, resonates with a lot of voters and is, perhaps most importantly, a genuinely likeable guy.  But none of that a president makes.  

Just as our session ended, Huckabee was fielding questions about who among the Republican notables would come out to raise money and campaign for him. Not surprisingly, he deflected those questions as any pol would, waiting for the appropriate moment of drama to announce the news.  

What he did say was much more interesting than what he didn’t.  Gov. Huckabee said that he was getting calls from a lot of leaders of the conservative movement, implying that he was someone these leaders believed they could coalesce around. If a conservative president is going to be elected, conservatives have to rally around one candidate and join together.  

Will that be Mike Huckabee? Maybe.  Or maybe Fred Dalton Thompson hasn’t spooked the deer.  Maybe it’s right in his sights.