Huckabee's Final Push in Iowa

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Republican candidate for president Mike Huckabee campaigns in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Mike Huckabee's campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, stopped shaving last week, like a superstitious quarterback not wanting to jinx the big game. He will be wearing a lucky baseball cap on caucus night, and a pinky ring with a smiley face on it. "It reminds me to be happy," he says.

But even without the ring, he can still think good thoughts, even while operating on just a couple hours of sleep, with graying stubble and bloodshot eyes. "I mean, what time is it?" he asks, as he lifts saltines from the salad bar here at the Pizza Ranch and fills his mouth. "It's 9 o'clock on New Year's Day, and we have 250 people here."

Indeed the restaurant is overflowing, both in people and enthusiasm. When Huckabee walked in a few minutes earlier, before he even said a word, everyone spontaneously stood and applauded, as if he had already won something. It was a welcome relief after an hour-long flight through frozen winds on rickety prop planes — one for the candidate and two for the press, including a wood-paneled antique that seated just five. It was also a sharp contrast to the cold shoulder Huckabee received from the journalistic establishment Monday, in one of the oddest press conferences in modern presidential campaign history.

At the event, Huckabee announced that he had decided not to use an attack ad he created to hit Mitt Romney, his main rival here, only to then play it for a roomful of political reporters. The national pencils and network producers laughed at him for what they viewed as a cynical gambit. And few believed him moments later, when Huckabee said, about his distain for gutter politics, "If you gain the whole world, but you lose your own soul, what does it profit you?"

But out here at the Pizza Ranch, the same line gets an elderly woman out of her seat to applaud, and the man down in front with the weathered face starts nodding his head. A few minutes later, someone says, "Amen," and a lady waves her hand in the air like she is witnessing a revival. This is what Saltsman has been saying for nearly 24 hours. "I am really not interested in what you guys think," he barked at a couple of reporters Monday night. "I'm interested in what the folks of Iowa think." He added, "We are not following the Washington, D.C., playbook."

The playbook that Saltsman wrote for the campaign is certainly unique. Ever since Christmas, Huckabee has spent as much time posing for eye-catching photographs and chatting with reporters as he has meeting with actual caucus-goers. He dressed in orange to pose with a shotgun and hunt pheasants in Osceola. He trained for the Boston Marathon in 16-degree temperatures, dressed in Hawkeye colors. He spent about an hour getting a cut and shave at a downtown Des Moines barber. He is a photographer's best friend.

The final days before the caucus were similarly planned for maximum media exposure — single events in eastern and western Iowa media markets, a party with Chuck Norris in Des Moines, and a Wednesday night appearance on the Tonight Show, even though Jay Leno's studios are located more than 1,500 miles away, as the crow flies. It's a strategy that takes sober account of the fact that Romney has a huge advantage in paid advertising on television, radio and person-to-person contact.

At the Huckabee headquarters Monday, a volunteer put a caller on hold and shouted across the room. "She said she is undecided between Romney and Huckabee, and Romney is knocking on her door to help her to the caucus. Do we do that?"

The answer: Not so much. Huckabee's campaign, though leading in several polls, is mostly strings and sealing wax behind the scenes — a small group of dedicated volunteers who are no match for Romney's massive corporate organization of Scantron call lists. While Romney boasts a boardroom of senior strategists, Huckabee's Iowa campaign director, Eric Woolson, was charged with waking up at 7 a.m. Tuesday to deliver Krispy Kreme donuts to nervous reporters waiting to board the prop planes.

But neither the campaign nor the candidate are complaining. In fact, their underdog status is a major part of Huckabee's appeal. He mentions it at every stop. "I grew up a lot more comfortable with the people working in the kitchen than the people sitting at the table," Huckabee says at the Pizza Ranch. And the crowds seem to eat it up.

But no one knows if Huckabee's message or Saltsman's strategy will be enough to pull off an upset victory caucus night — not the political reporters, not the consultants and not the pollsters, who keep releasing data that cumulatively shows a dead heat. And the truth be told, even Saltsman, the architect, no longer has much control over the outcome at Thursday night's caucuses. Most of the pieces have already been played. So he grows his beard, fingers his pinky ring, and barely sleeps. "On Friday," he calls out, "you can write that either I am a genius, or an idiot."