Republican Presidential Candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee laughs in Ames Iowa
John Gress  /  Reuters
Mike Huckabee, left, laughs with friend Rick Calhoun while playing bass in his band "Capitol Offense" during in Ames on Saturday.
updated 8/13/2007 8:06:26 AM ET 2007-08-13T12:06:26

“I can’t buy you — I don’t have the money,” Mike Huckabee, the Arkansas Republican seeking the presidency, told Republicans at the Iowa Straw Poll this weekend. He offered a mock frown.

“I can’t even rent you,” he said.

The crowd, which had been rustling, burst into warm laughter at a pointed joke intended to remind them of Mr. Huckabee’s earnest underdog campaign. Five hours later, the voters rewarded him with 2,587 votes and a second-place finish in the poll — surprising, it would seem, even Mr. Huckabee.

If much of the country knows Mr. Huckabee at all, it is as the Southern Baptist minister and former governor from Arkansas who lost 110 pounds, wrote a book about it and toured the television talk show circuit promoting good eating habits.

On Sunday, Mr. Huckabee received fresh attention as the Republican who, building on an appeal to conservative Christians, managed an underfinanced campaign to come in second, behind Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who got 32 percent of the votes. Before the voting even started, much of the political significance had been sapped from the event by the absence of three candidates: Rudolph W. Giuliani, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Fred D. Thompson. 

So it says something about American politics that a second-place finish in a nonbinding poll in which Mr. Huckabee drew 18 percent should be viewed as an achievement that would energize and extend a campaign that has been viewed within his party as a long shot. Still, Mr. Huckabee, appearing on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, did not seem to find anything amusing about that.

“An amazing kind of day for us,” Mr. Huckabee said.

But for those who have followed Mr. Huckabee as he has traveled across the country these past six months, he has distinguished himself in another way: as a candidate of considerable humor who stands apart in this oh-so-serious field of presidential contenders (think Mr. Giuliani talking about the threat of terrorist attacks). Mr. Huckabee uses humor as a way to court voters, soften rivals, make political arguments and seamlessly slice an opponent.“I was the first governor in America to have a concealed handgun permit — so don’t mess with me!” Mr. Huckabee told a conservative convention in Washington.

Or consider this, as he invited Republicans to join in “a Q. and A.” with him in West Des Moines. “What it really stands for is questions and avoidance,” he explained. “I do my best not to say anything that would end my political career.”

Or this, talking about what Mr. Huckabee has described as frequent accusations of political corruption in the state: “It got to be where the five most feared words for an Arkansas politician were, ‘Will the defendant please rise’.”

The risk of shtick
Mr. Huckabee’s use of humor amounts to a style of politicking that many audiences have found engaging, and that stands out in an era of bloggers and journalists recording a candidate’s slightest slip.

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Shtick in politics has its risks, as Mr. Huckabee is probably about to find out if he gets the attention he said on Sunday that he deserved. But for now, his humor may go a long way in explaining why he finished ahead of a decidedly more somber Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. Both men made similar conservative appeals to similar voters.

Video: Romney interview “Campaigns shouldn’t always be painful,” Mr. Huckabee said when asked about his approach in an interview here. “Politics shouldn’t be like a root canal.”

Mr. Huckabee said he came from a family with a very funny father. “My mother, not so much,” he said.

“If you can do it naturally and also make your point with humor, people will remember it,” he said. “I have heard people come up and speak to me, saying they met me 15 years ago — I don’t even remember being in their homes — but they remember some story or joke and the point I had made.”

That being funny would make Mr. Huckabee stand out says less about this year’s flock of candidates and more about how politics has changed. Humor, at least the unscripted kind, has become a risky business.

McCain learned lesson
These days, candidates are always surrounded by clusters of microphones, hand-held video cameras and cellphone cameras. It is hard for candidates to know whether they are being recorded by friend or foe. But it is a safe bet that someone hovering nearby is hoping to catch the kind of errant comment or joke that can be posted on YouTube.

One of Mr. Huckabee’s rivals, Mr. McCain — a man of more than a little humor — discovered that earlier this year. At a town hall meeting, when he was asked whether he thought it was a good idea for the United States to bomb Iran, he broke into a refrain of the Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann,” but changed the lyrics to “bomb, bomb, bomb.”

Someone captured the moment on video and posted it on YouTube, and Mr. McCain found himself fending off attacks. (Mr. McCain being Mr. McCain, at his next campaign event, he walked out, grinning impishly, to the sounds of “Barbara Ann.”)

Mr. Huckabee stands out with jokes that are improvised as often as they are read off a page. He has appeared on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” He plays in a rock-and-roll band called Capitol Offense.

The humor seems an integral part of an easy-going, self-effacing, jaunty personality, though one that is no doubt calculated to some degree. That is one reason Republicans have watched him as a potential dark horse.

“One of the things I think I’ve brought to the process is unapologetically I’m a conservative — but I’m not mad at anybody over it,” he told a voter in Iowa.

The next six months will tell if telling jokes is the same as winning votes. But Mr. Huckabee certainly is entertaining his audiences.

In West Des Moines the other evening, he was talking about cutting spending and taxes to an attentive audience when he was halted by the trill of a cellphone.

“If that’s Dick Cheney wanting me to go on a duck hunt, tell him I’m not doing it,” he said.

What had been a very quiet room burst with laughter.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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