How Will Huckabee's Populism Play?

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Jim Young / Reuters

Republican candidate for President Mike Huckabee campaigns in Iowa.

The pastor's power is to tell you what it all means. And so Mike Huckabee, the preacher turned politician, stands before several hundred in a convention hall here Friday, spinning a tale worthy of a worship service. His campaign, he says, is not just about his ideas for the country. It is about reclaiming the very essence of America — a land where any child, no matter how poor or disconnected from power, can grow up to be President of the United States.

"I can't think of anything that would more prove that the American dream was alive and well than if the folks from Iowa can give this kid from Arkansas a chance to lead this country," says the former Arkansas governor, who was the first man in his family to graduate high school. "You will restore the faith of a lot of people in this country that you can't buy the White House, that you got to earn it the old-fashioned way. And ladies and gentleman that is what Jan. 3rd is about."

To hear Huckabee tell it, he is the candidate who knows what it's like on the wrong side of the tracks. In other election cycles, Huckabee's fellow Republicans might have called this sort of talk the language of "class warfare," the bread and butter of John Edwards, the faux-populism of John Kerry. By tradition and ideology, the Grand Old Party has long avoided directly addressing America's deepening gulf in opportunity and income. For years, the conservative vision has held that all citizens, even the short order cook or the assembly line worker, benefit from a rising stock market and a falling estate tax.

But as Huckabee now mounts his closing argument for the Iowa caucuses, he has moved full bore into the rhetoric of economic populism. "I am out to change the Republican Party. It needs changing. It needs to be inclusive of all those people across America for whom this party should stand," he said Sunday, on CBS's Face The Nation. On the trail, he speaks regularly of challenging the "Washington to Wall Street power axis." He frankly acknowledges the suffering of the stagnating middle class, and even offers up government as a part of the solution. "The President ought to be aware that the people struggle," he said in Muscatine on Friday morning. "He ought to be aware every time a decision is made — whether [or not] it's to raise taxes — how it's going to hurt the family out there, who can barely pay the grocery bill as it is."

At some of these events, if you close your eyes, you would think a Democrat was speaking — Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton turned Southern Baptist. "I really think that a lot of people who are elected to government forget," Huckabee will say. "They are not elected to the ruling class but to the servant class." But the trick with Huckabee is that his populist rhetoric is only rarely matched with progressive proposals. He supports continuing President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in the short term, and advocates the so-called Fair Tax, which would replace the progressive income tax with a more regressive national sales tax. His major education reform would not be more federal spending on teachers or preschool, but more arts education, stricter teacher testing and a new federal push for home schooling or charter schools. When he speaks of health care, he talks not of new federal benefits, but of more focus on prevention for chronic disease like diabetes and tax breaks for health savings.

In the swirling snow drifts and blanketing fog of late-December Iowa, this unlikely amalgam of populism, conservative policies and peerless religious credentials appears to have hit a chord. In just a few weeks, he has rocketed into the lead among Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina, two states rich with evangelical voters. As the primaries drag on, his ability to expand his support beyond Christian conservatives will depend even more heavily upon his populist pitch. The campaign remains confident of the gamble paying off. "I think what this is, is the Republican Party getting back in touch with its base," said Chip Saltsman, Huckabee's campaign manager. "If you look at Reagan and Ford, they pulled themselves up from their bootstraps."

It also helps that Huckabee remains one of the most talented orators in either party this cycle. "When he talks to a group or a roomful of people, he still seems to come across like he is talking to you," says Don Woods, a letter carrier from Cedar Rapids who attended a Huckabee event last Thursday. "I have yet to meet a friend or co-worker who hasn't come away thinking, 'I could live with this guy.'"

This is an advantage that Huckabee desperately needs to exploit, since his ground organization in Iowa pales in comparison to his rivals. He boasts a paid Iowa staff of just 14, up from eight at the start of November. By contrast, Republican Mitt Romney, who comes in second in most polls, has 17 full-time Iowa staffers, and another 60 part-time organizers who have been in place for months. At the end of each Romney event in Iowa, the candidate implores supporters to fill out cards so they can be put in the campaign's data-base. At the end of Huckabee's events late last week, the candidate told his supporters instead to lure out their friends on caucus night by promising a free dinner. "Pull up to the house, honk the horn," he advised one crowd. "As soon as they get into the backseat, toss them a bologna sandwich and say, 'Eat quick. The caucus starts in 30 minutes.' "

With this sort of folksy encouragement, Huckabee has bet that what he lacks in organization, he can make up for in enthusiasm, especially among the party's religious base. "Huckabee has a very active, passionate organization on the ground, but the campaign just isn't organized," said one veteran Iowa operative working for a rival Republican campaign. "He's got natural networks out there that are doing it themselves." These include some of the same networks that allowed Huckabee to place a surprise second in the August Ames straw poll: home schoolers, Bible study groups, and well-organized supporters of the Fair Tax.

At a Thursday night event in Cedar Rapids, sponsored by the Iowa Christian Alliance, Huckabee showed why he has made such dramatic inroads with religious voters. He spoke of "the crisis going on in this culture of ours." He described gay marriage as a threat to the "skeletal system" of our civilization. He compared abortion to the practice of slavery, and quoted liberally from the Bible. It is rhetoric he sparingly used before more mixed audiences or on the trail in New Hampshire, where voters tend to be more private about their religious views. "You try to always scratch where the itch is," Huckabee explained to the press, in an interview over the weekend. "That's true whether it's speeches or your own sores."

In Iowa, the evangelical appeal may be enough to carry him to victory, following the trail blazed by the televangelist Pat Robertson in 1988, who placed second in the Republican caucuses. If Huckabee wins Iowa, however, the rest of the Republican Party awaits, and it is unclear how they will respond to a candidate who speaks openly about class disparities in America. At minimum, the strategy is certain to define him against the rest of the Republican pack, which includes the son of a Navy admiral, John McCain, the son of a governor, Mitt Romney, and a wealthy big-city mayor, Rudy Giuliani. As Huckabee rarely fails to mention on the trail, he was born to a part-time firefighter and mechanic in a rental house, and he started working at 14. "My roots are not the most desirable ones in all the world, if you want to take a look at economics," he tells the crowd at the convention hall here Friday.

The childhood sores of poverty long ago healed over for Huckabee, who spent more than a decade in the Arkansas Governor's mansion. But Huckabee continues to identify an itch in the Republican Party, and the nation as a whole, for a more frank appraisal of the working family's struggle. As the caucuses approach, he is scratching away as best he can.