WATERLOO, Iowa – It was Jolene Tagtow's 49th birthday,
and Mike Huckabee surprised her last week when he
concluded a rally at a local pizza parlor by urging 100
potential supporters to sing to her.
“How many people have the next president of the United
States singing 'Happy Birthday' to them?” Huckabee
wondered. After the last strains faded, Huckabee sought to
shame Tagtow's husband into taking her to a fancy
restaurant – not another pizza joint – warning that if he
didn't, “You'll be wearing a frying pan on your head.”
All that special attention notwithstanding, Jolene
Tagtow remained undecided, even while acknowledging that
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, “is saying a lot
of things I already agree with.”
But Tagtow said she needed to listen to candidates such
as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was due to
follow Huckabee in Iowa last week.
Union-Tribune politics writer John Marelius will
take your questions on national and state politics
during a live online chat from 10 to 11 a.m.
Tagtow's ambivalence about supporting Huckabee in
Iowa's Jan. 3 Republican presidential caucuses appears to
mirror a central problem confronting the genial former
Despite his growing support in Iowa and admiring media
attention, he has failed so far to convince party skeptics
that he can win the Republican nomination and defeat the
Huckabee shrugs off his critics, saying in an
interview: “The interesting thing to me is that every
month somebody has written my (political) obituary. Here
we are in the middle of November – we're still standing.
In fact, we're not just standing. . . . We've had a steady
rise and now a surge. I'd rather be where I am than where
some of these other guys are.”
Huckabee promotes an inclusive political gospel that
marries conservative values with an economic populism
founded on Christian principles of charity, fairness and
concern for the weak and underprivileged. An applause line
comes when he proposes to abolish the income tax – and the
dreaded Internal Revenue Service – and replace it with a
national consumption levy.
After a surprising second-place finish in August's Iowa
straw poll, Huckabee, 52, emerged as the principal
competitor to the GOP front-runner here – former
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But Huckabee remains substantially outgunned by Romney,
whose campaign has been airing television ads in Iowa
since January. Huckabee's campaign aides say they will
soon do likewise, but they are vague about when.
Huckabee appears to be winning hearts, but not yet
minds in Iowa. Republican activists are reluctant to
support him absent a convincing showing in national polls.
He remains mired in single digits in many of them.
“The main hurdle for Mike Huckabee in Iowa is viability
after the caucus,” said Chuck Laudner, the executive
director of the Iowa Republican Party. “The limit now,
really, is . . . 'OK, even if you win Iowa, where do you
go?' They have got to see that there is a chance. . . .
That is his limit for climbing higher in the polls.
Otherwise, he's right on the issues.”
Some Republicans who came out to assess Huckabee during
an Iowa campaign swing last week underscored those
After an event in Cedar Falls, Barry Adams, 66, said:
“I support him – for vice president. I think Governor
Romney has a little better chance to raise the money to be
president. I think Mike's time will not be in '08 but some
time later to be president.”
Still, Huckabee has parlayed affability, oratorical
skills honed during years in a Baptist pulpit and a knack
for self-promotion to become a credible dark horse against
what many Republicans consider a stable of flawed
thoroughbreds – Giuliani, Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain
and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
At the heart of his appeal is his self-advertisement as
a right-winger who's not mad at anybody.
In the pizza parlor, Huckabee talked tough about
cracking down on illegal immigration but added: “I thank
God every day I'm in a country that people are trying to
break into, not break out of. And I'm not angry at the
people who want to come here.”
Analysts say the underdog optimist has pragmatic
“A smile and a shoeshine can only take you so far,”
said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont
McKenna College. “Now perhaps there is a stealth
organization that hasn't gotten a lot of attention. But
absent that, it is extremely unlikely that he'll be able
to overcome the disadvantages that he faces.”
One of those obstacles is hostility from fiscal
conservatives, who point to his 10½-year record as
governor when he cut deals with a Democratic state
legislature to raise revenues for road projects and
education and to improve child health care. In his
defense, Huckabee notes that he championed about 90 tax
His rhetoric about the vagaries of an otherwise strong
economy suggests a bleeding heart to his critics.
Repeating a line he uses often, he told a Cedar Rapids
crowd that “I'm one generation away from dirt floors and
outdoor toilets. . . . My ancestry doesn't open doors.”
In a dig at a former senior Bush aide who doubted
whether anyone with the “hick” name of Huckabee could be
elected president, the candidate drew a roar of laughter
when he quipped, “Well, la-di-da-di-da.”
He also riles GOP free-trade purists by saying as
president he would insist on “fair trade,” meaning
penalties and trade barriers for countries such as China
that use child labor and other unsavory practice.
In the interview, Huckabee pushed back against those
“Is it morally responsible for me to know that I'm
enjoying the low price because some 9-year-old worked 20
hours?” he said. “When economics becomes devoid of any
sense of morality, then I think they are no longer
justified as pure economic policies.”