I missed Mike Huckabee’s press conference on Monday--the one where he spiked his own attack ad, then promptly screened it for the national media. In my infinite wisdom, I decided to catch a Joe Biden event instead. (I’d been to half a dozen Huckabee pressers already. What more was there to see?) So, as penance, I skipped the nap I’d been planning and caught Huckabee’s New Year’s event at Des Moines’ Wakonda Club instead.
When I arrived, a local talk radio host named Steve Deace was hard at work on a microphone. Deace is a baby-faced man of 35, who is about five-feet, ten-inches high and 250 pounds wide (down from around 300 not long ago), and was actually the first Huckabee supporter I’d ever met. At some risk to his livelihood, Deace has basically turned his last six months of airtime into an exercise in Huckabee boosterism, and now he was explaining why.
“You know, a lot of the media, national and international media, talk to me off the record when they interview me,” he told the New Year’s crowd. “They want to know, ‘Hey, what do you think his ad “Christian Leader” means?’ ... [W]hat I think it means is this: If you’re truly going to be that type of a leader, then you’re going to have the guy in the suit and the guy in the dress both mad at you. And I think, you have seen the establishment on both sides--right and left, the way they have gone after Mike … that tells you [he’s] somebody who acts on the courage of their convictions even when it’s not popular.”
Welcome to the mind of the Huckabee die-hard.
The evangelicals who’ve flocked to Huckabee this fall have spent years as the ugly step-child of American politics--condescended to by the mainstream media, privately scorned by the Republican elite. Or at least they think so. And everything that’s happened since Huckabee’s improbable surge has only confirmed their suspicions. Now that they’re finally in the driver’s seat--even if only for now, even if only in Iowa--you can practically feel the triumphalism. Ain’t turnabout grand?
Long before the Chuck Norris endorsement, before the bass-playing photo-ops and the cascade of magazine covers, there was Kathryn Bohn. Bohn is a former television reporter who met Huckabee at a dinner last January and, on the basis of an earnest exchange about abortion, has been a loyalist ever since. I sidled up to her at a recent Huckabee event in Davenport after I noticed her nodding vigorously.
Bohn runs the nearby Women's Choice Center, which counsels women against having abortions and provides basic obstetric services. She told me her 6,000-square-foot clinic is “strategically and divinely placed right across the street from Planned Parenthood,” which evidently took some doing. When they first conceived of the clinic almost a decade ago, Bohn says, she and her fellow activists fasted on the plot of land for 21 days, until an anonymous donor finally helped them buy it. Later, according to Bohn, the city council blocked construction of their building. But the group appealed to a federal judge, who ordered the land rezoned. Bohn estimates she’s prevented some 800 abortions in the intervening years. “I call it the Miracle on Happy Joe Drive,” she says, recalling how the story was featured on the “700 Club.”
For Bohn, the Miracle on Happy Joe Drive is a lot like the miracle of Mike Huckabee. “Early on, people were saying, ‘Well, Huckabee can’t win.’ I’m like, ‘If we all come out, if we all support him, he can win.’ We’re a strong power, you know. We are the grassroots. It’s just like what happened at the Women’s Choice Center. People said it could not happen, but we just kept pressing on. And now, like I said, hundreds and hundreds of babies have been saved.”
Most of the people I chatted with at the New Year’s party had similar stories about falling for Huckabee. A farmer told me he’d been won over in June or July, after hearing Huckabee hold forth on abortion. A manager at an agriculture equipment manufacturer said he thought Huckabee would be the compassionate conservative George W. Bush never quite turned out to be.
But it’s not just social issues like abortion that account for his Iowa boom. Huckabee’s true believers talk expansively about knowing the man’s heart, a case study in the evangelical habit of favoring personal experience over a more structured intellectual style. “Those of us who met him early on and have watched him--one of the things that I really felt was that he has the favor of the Lord,” Bohn told me. “He’s a man of integrity who believes the country can be great again,” said a dentist from nearby Winterset. “It’s not political.”
The upshot is that Huckabee’s supporters aren’t particularly susceptible to the campaign’s daily tidal movements. To them, Mitt Romney’s attacks on pardons and immigration are like low-grade radio static--mild annoyances, if they register at all. Meanwhile, Huckabee’s recent foreign policy gaffes (his ignorance of the National Intelligence Estimate casting doubt on Iran’s nukes, his attempt to connect Pakistani terrorism to the immigration issue) are almost beside the point. “He may not have international foreign policy experience,” said a supporter named Brian Patterson, a vice president at a local college. “But he can be a uniter, not a divider. … He’s done it on the small stage of the church.”
At the press conference that afternoon, the national media guffawed when Huckabee queued up the ad he’d just decided to kill. A cheap ploy, they said. Arkansas-style amateur hour. Yet the Huckabee faithful were, to a man, sympathetic. Patterson told me he saw Huckabee’s decision as part of the evangelical duty to “pray without ceasing.” “You’re seeking Christ’s direction daily, and he’s going to speak to you at different times,” he said. “Say you’re supposed to be speaking. You might have notes, and at the last minute, God wants you to speak about something else. You chuck your notes and rely on God’s leading for these decisions.”
When Huckabee finally took the stage, he cracked a few jokes, then sobered up and explained himself: “If we’re going to change politics, then our campaign is as good a place as any to start,” he said. “I’ll be able to sleep with peace in my heart, knowing I’ve done the right thing.” Des Moines hadn’t seen so much head-bobbing since Procol Harum last rocked the Civic Center. Clearly, the media had gotten it wrong.
Or, maybe they’d gotten it the way Huckabee hoped they would. On my way out, I spotted Deace holding court in front of a small crowd--talk radio without the radio, as far as I could tell. When, at long last, he paused for air, I asked what he’d thought of the day’s excitement. “If I were Mike, I would do everything I could to get The New York Times and The Washington Post ticked off at me,” he allowed. “Because then I could say, ‘I’m just another conservative the liberal media is crushing.’”
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor for The New Republic.