NEWS

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January 7, 2008

2 days in NH, part 4: Schoolhouse rock

(note: for some reason that image can only be posted horizontally. Just tilt your head sideways.)Watch Mike Huckabee work a room in Henniker and you begin to see just how inevitable his victory in Iowa was—and why it won’t happen here.He spent months on the ground in Iowa, laying the groundwork for his success by strumming his bass and cracking jokes with a charm so folksy you feel rude for not laughing. Experienced alongside Mitt Romney’s strained warmth and it’s little wonder that the good folks of Ames and Mason City and Cedar Rapids and just about everywhere else welcomed Huckabee into their good graces and gave him a runaway victory. Now, four days away from a vote that could burst his presidential bubble, he appears to be trying out the same model.Addressing a curious crowd from a stage nestled snugly into the corner of the tiny gymnasium at New England College, Huckabee has produced a stunningly low-key environment for his first public event since the upset in Iowa. If those in attendance have already declared their allegiance to the Arkansas governor, though, they keep it to themselves. It looks like a fair number of those seated and standing against the walls are first timers who have seen or heard of Huckabee only in the last couple of days. We find bleachers seats next to a couple from Germany, six blond haired children who keep running into my knee, and a father-son tag team rhythmically waving a Mike Huckabee sign.In some respects it’s just like the last two rallies—defense-spending pie chart lady is there, and so are the global warming activists (this time they have a volunteer in a snowman suit for the kids), the pin hawkers, and the health care sticker lady—but mostly it’s unlike anything else I’ve seen. For one, there’s a whole bloc of middle school-aged boys seated stage left. You only have to listen to them for a moment to know why they came. They love the Governor’s immigration policy—or more specifically, his plan to fight it. Perhaps you’ve seen the ad.Most of the audience sits quietly and curiously, during the performance from the opening band, “Mama Kicks,” and the introduction of the candidate, his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. Norris. As the Governor picks up his bass and announces “I bet they don’t have this much fun at Hillary Clinton rallies,” they cheer politely. Throughout much of this, though, the Chucksters are doing their best to have their pre-pubescent voices heard. Shouts of “Chuck for president!” and “We want Chuck!” echo repeatedly from the bleachers, to which the former Walker, Texas Ranger star can only smile and blush. Blushing, unlike crying, is apparently within the realm of possibility for Mr. Norris.Huckabee is a low-key performer. Anyone hoping for a Spinal Tap-esque performance—maybe he’ll start shredding his bass with a cello bow, or drop to his knees and play with his teeth, or at least a couple of lines into the microphone—will be greatly disappointed. He stands in the back, enjoying himself but letting his band do most of the work, with the exception of one pretty mean solo. It’s the musical equivalent of the Chris Dodd campaign.The same style holds for his speech. It’s been widely said, almost to a point of acceptance, that Huckabee is a great speaker. He’s not. He’s a great talker, and there is a difference. He speaks with an internal confidence that doesn’t seem to feed off of the crowd but instead produces a moderate, conversational tone. As a result his great moments are brief ones—as in an Iowa debate when he told Mitt Romney “America is a better country than to punish children for the crimes of their parents”—that add up over time, rather than immediate (like Obama). That works in Iowa, where Huckabee had months to win over voters, but not New Hampshire, where he’ll have just a few days.In some ways, Huckabee is John Edwards’s Republican alter-ego. There’s all the enthusiasm and confidence of a successful campaign without the air of expectation. Huckabee, like Edwards, has picked up on the Seabiscuit moniker (although truthfully Barbaro—early victory, followed by a series of crushing and debilitating defeats—might prove to be more apt). His populist rhetoric matches that of Edwards in many spots, like when he calls for increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans to ease the burden on the undefined middle class.A few weeks after unveiling a “plan” to kick all illegal immigrants out of the country within 120 days, he stays away from the specifics of the immigration debate today, instead offering broad generalizations that don’t reveal much of anything. “I want everybody to come through the front door and not the back door, he says, “and do things the right way and not the wrong way.” Incidentally, he feels the same way about homosexuality, but that topic is not discussed, nor are any of the topics so dear to so-called “values voters.” Huckabee’s base does not live in New Hampshire, and as a result the substance of his talk is much different from his Iowa stump. In the foreign policy section of his talk, he turns the state motto into a threat to extremists: “You better let these folks live free—or you will die.”“When you go to vote, it’s not bullets you’ll use to fill out your ballots,” Huckabee says, alluding to the recent violence in Kenya. But then, who needs bullets when you already have Chuck Norris.The event that started off so slowly picks up toward the end as the Governor hits a few notes that delight the attendees. He comes off as likable, well intentioned, and honest, but with four more days until the primary, that won’t be enough for New Hampshire Republicans.