Mike Huckabee was taking a vigorous morning run on a hotel treadmill on Saturday, avoiding the trail outside. “Too much snow out there,” said Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, explaining his wariness of the slick roads and blocked pathways of New Hampshire. He worried, he said, about getting sideswiped or “hitting some patch of black ice and getting hurt.”
Supply your own metaphor here about the unlikely Republican front-runner afraid of slipping up, content to run in place, or anything relating to the new course Mr. Huckabee is trying to navigate. He is attempting one of the tougher transitions in politics: from also-ran to novelty act to overnight leader, with all the new scrutiny, expectation and attention that brings.
“I have a lot more enemies now, but that’s part of the deal,” Mr. Huckabee said. He has cited attacks from the news media, interest groups and other candidates over his record as governor, his background as a Baptist preacher, past ethical questions, alleged liberal tendencies, impolitic remarks about people with AIDS, raising taxes and “just about everything from the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to being complicit in the participation of the J.F.K. assassination.”
'Suicide by his party'
One conservative critic, Rich Lowry, wrote in the latest National Review that if Republicans nominate Mr. Huckabee, it would “represent an act of suicide by his party.” Mr. Huckabee has even drawn questions this week about accusations that his son David was involved in killing a stray dog at a Boy Scout camp in 1998 (“It was mangy,” Mr. Huckabee said when asked about the episode on “Larry King Live” on Monday. “It looked like it was going to attack.”)
In an exclusive treadmill interview in New Hampshire, the front-runner was drenched in sweat, breathing hard and spewing forth with homespun one-liners that have become a trademark. He seems, for whatever reason, particularly fond of canine themes.
“Hey, dogs never bark at parked cars,” said the candidate, whose round brown eyes and smiley bearing make him slightly resemble the actor Jim Nabors. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight,” he adds, “it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
He is trying to look forward, not back, he said, “because you know, that’s why the windshield is so much bigger than the rear-view mirror.”
Mr. Huckabee’s rear-view mirror reflects great indifference to his candidacy just a few months ago. He was probably best known as the recovering fat guy who dropped 110 pounds as a born-again fitness and nutrition buff (a kind of Oprah candidate before she started campaigning with Senator Barack Obama.) He has since presented himself as a cheerful, plain-spoken presence in an otherwise earnest and sober field, a contrast that won him particularly good reviews in the Republican debates. (He has also, for the record, gained back 12 of those pounds, enough for a visible paunch.)
Mr. Huckabee is now leading in some polls in Iowa, gaining in New Hampshire and moving up in national surveys. While polls are fluid, Mr. Huckabee has positioned himself in the top tier of Republican candidates. People approach him in airports to share testimonials of weight loss and exercise.
But to watch the former Arkansas governor on the stump in recent days is to witness the awkward shifting of a candidate with nothing to lose to one with something to lose. His understaffed campaign seems overwhelmed by the aggressive operation of his opponents, particularly his chief attacker, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
And despite his smiley demeanor, Mr. Huckabee can betray some of the prickliness that earned him a reputation in Arkansas as being thin skinned and somewhat vindictive. He loves “looking into the faces of those people who didn’t just doubt me, but who dismissed me,” Mr. Huckabee said. He grins, wipes a droplet of sweat from his chin. “Now they’re saying completely different things.”
Mr. Huckabee’s campaign events have become increasingly crowded and media-heavy affairs while retaining an oddly lighthearted, even campy feel. Some supporters have taken to showing up at his New Hampshire events dressed up as black and yellow Huck-a-Bees, with big twirly antennas emanating from their heads.
“What are those, reindeer horns or something?” a confused Janet Huckabee, his wife, queried a Huck-a-Bee, Adam Bungert, a student at the University of New Hampshire.
Mr. Huckabee’s speeches abound with populist criticism of executive salaries and emphasis on his own upbringing in Hope, Ark., which he describes as “one generation away from dirt floors and outdoor toilets.”
Another theme is, increasingly, siege. “My opponents have taken out all the sharp knives in the kitchen and are getting them all nice to slice and dice me,” Mr. Huckabee said.
Earlier, on the treadmill, Mr. Huckabee said, “I’m being questioned about the details of my faith like no one else.”
It is a debatable statement given the attention that’s been given to Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion. Mr. Huckabee himself apologized to Mr. Romney a few days earlier for remarks attributed to him in The New York Times Magazine in which Mr. Huckabee asked, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”
Grown closer to 'McCain and Giuliani'
When asked how he felt personally about Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee swerved, saying, “I’ve grown a lot closer to McCain and Giuliani.”
The candidate has been accompanied of late by Chuck Norris, the tough-guy actor and martial arts icon whose face, Mr. Huckabee said, “would be on Mount Rushmore except the granite wasn’t strong enough for his beard.”
Mr. Norris can at times seem like a distracting relic of Mr. Huckabee’s “nothing to lose” days. In Concord on Friday, Mr. Huckabee addressed a packed news conference to introduce his new campaign chairman, Ed Rollins, the longtime Republican operative. Mr. Norris stood silently off to the side, and it was unclear why he was there at all, except to sign autographs for a few reporters afterward. When asked what he felt he added to the Huckabee campaign, Mr. Norris said simply, “Nothing,” before posing for a few more pictures and leaving.
But the Huck and Chuck show plays well in the burly men circles that tend to vote Republican, if not always in primaries. In the northern New Hampshire outpost of Berlin on Saturday, a crowd heavy with teenagers and young men jammed the cafeteria of a small technical college, many clutching photos of Mr. Norris.
Lawrence Thompson, a 19-year-old dishwasher wearing an AC/DC sweatshirt, approached Mr. Norris and asked if he could be photographed bowing before the actor. Mr. Norris obliged, and Mr. Thompson declared his “worship” for The Man, if not The Candidate. “I’m still doing that whole research thing,” Mr. Thompson said of Mr. Huckabee.