Eating Up Huckabee

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images

Mike and Janet Huckabee taste a "Huckaburger", created by chef Brian Shea (left) during a visit to the Barley House restaurant in Concord, New Hampshire, Jan. 7, 2008

This is what it looks like when the seams burst on a threadbare campaign: Over a hundred people, crushed together between the Mike Huckabee bus and the front door of the Barley House restaurant Monday afternoon on Main Street in Concord, N.H.

The fans of rival candidate Ron Paul shout "Tax Hike Mike" over the Huck boosters, who scream "We Like Mike," and the press is jammed by the dozens in the middle, unable to get through the front door to witness the day's crucial newsmaking moment, when the Huck-a-campaign pulls off its latest Huck-a-coup — the launch of the Huck-a-burger. Yes, this is really happening.

We bang on the restaurant's front window. "What do you need?" a Huckabee aide writes out on a piece of paper, unable to hear us. TO GET IN! He understands, but can't help. "Fire marshal says no capacity," he writes back on his notepad. So we are left to stand in the street, amid the unending din. Even MSNBC's Chris Matthews, with his shimmering corn-husk blond hair, cannot gain entrance. Huckabee's own son, David, is not even going to try.

Just a few weeks ago, none of this would ever have happened. Back then Huckabee was still known as the pastor with the funny tax plan, whom no one really understood and only a handful of reporters followed. Sure, he was polling well in Iowa, went the buzz, but that's where all the evangelicals live. He had no real campaign operation to back him up. He was considered a flash in the pan. He was a curiosity. He wasn't going anywhere. Remember Pat Robertson in 1988? It was just a matter of time.

But then Huckabee won in Iowa, not barely, but by 9 points. He crushed Mitt Romney, despite the Mitt machine, a massive campaign organization that ruled the August straw poll and dropped nasty mailers like confetti. Now he is polling third behind Romney and McCain in New Hampshire, the two home-state favorites, at about 11%, a Southern Baptist minister who has pulled ahead of a former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, in New England. Huckabee has skillfully set expectations low enough that a third-place finish in New Hampshire will be viewed as a success, and he is also leading in polls in South Carolina, where the G.O.P. will hold a key primary on January 19. So the press has got to figure Huckabee out, and fast, which is bad timing, because New Hampshire voters are trying to do the same thing. On more than one occasion, the crowds have grown unwieldy, halls packed with enthusiastic audiences, all in a state where most folk don't much trust anyone who wears religion on his sleeve.

On Sunday in Windham, Huckabee filled a school cafeteria so tight that it was tough to get at the free clam chowder. He delivered a new stump speech, retailored for the less religious and more libertarian New Hampshire voter. It was full of big statements about the wonders of America, the need for low taxes and his identification with the little guy. Back in Iowa, Huckabee would often compare slavery and abortion — both resulted, he argued, from ignoring the principle that every human life is created equal. Now in New Hampshire, he begins the same riff, about the horrors of racism and slavery, but the moral has less to do with social values than economic ones. "We need to now value every human being irregardless of their net worth," he says. When the event was over, voters lined up to wait 30 minutes to shake his hand. Chip Saltsman, who manages the Huckabee campaign, still works as a body man at events, handing the candidate bumper stickers to sign.

At the same time, despite his much-mocked pledge to run a positive campaign, Huckabee has continued to play hardball with Romney. He tells reporters to ask the other candidates if they know how to clean a gun. "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off," he says to crowds, small and large. During a debate Saturday, Romney accused him of mischaracterizing his position on the war in Iraq. "Which one?" Huckabee shot back, earning laughter from the audience and a scornful glance from the former Massachusetts governor.

The rest is still mostly improvisation in a campaign that has been thriving on the charisma of its candidate, who lacks much of a policy framework or fundraising operation. In the course of four days, he has played his bass with both high school and professional bands. He has posed with soccer balls for the children of Iraq, and invited photographers to watch him run 14 miles Sunday afternoon before a debate — nine minutes a mile, says a press aide. Everywhere he goes, his celebrity endorser Chuck Norris follows.

But the campaign coup de grace came on Monday, when the schedule said Huck and Chuck would "attend the launch of the Huckaburger." So ensued the mob outside the Barley House, the chanting Paul supporters, the frustrated journalists. Few were able to see the actual burger, which consisted of bison meat on a whole wheat bun with spinach and a fried pickle, according to a senior aide. But then that may be okay for the still soaring Huckabee campaign. The fact that more than a hundred people strained outside the restaurant window for a glimpse of a piece of meat was validation enough.