He came to town this week dressed in a dark pinstriped suit and cowboy boots, advocating lower taxes, death to the Internal Revenue Service and restoration of the words “Merry Christmas” and “Jesus Christ” to the American lexicon.
And Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister who rose to the first tier of Republican presidential candidates on the strength of his Christian bona fides, was received by supporters as he returned to Iowa this week like the second coming of Santa Claus.
At rallies, they posed their red-sweatered children on his knee for photographs, as if he were the man in the red suit at the mall. They gave him standing ovations when he said the words they wanted to hear.
“I know this is probably a very controversial thing, but may I say to you, Merry Christmas!” Mr. Huckabee told an audience of 200 in Marshalltown on Thursday morning, as the crowd rose to its feet.
Clearly delighted over a controversy set off by a recent campaign advertisement in which he says “what really matters” this time of year is not the presidential campaign but “the celebration of the birth of Christ,” Mr. Huckabee has missed no opportunity in his speeches to his core supporters of evangelical voters to utter those words, underlining the Christ part.
“What’s wrong with our country, what is wrong with our culture, is that you can’t say the name Jesus Christ without people going completely berserk,” Mr. Huckabee told a crowd in Dike, a tiny farm town about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines, where people also stood to applaud.
Undisputed hegemony of Christianity
Whatever unease politicians may stir when they invoke Christmas among non-Christians does not seem to apply here. The hegemony of Christianity is as undisputed and unbroken as the landscape is flat. The notion of controversy over it is viewed as political correctness gone wild or, at best, a terrible misunderstanding.
Still, while appealing openly to his core audience as someone who says he is driven “by convictions, not just positions,” Mr. Huckabee has been careful to delimit the role he sees for faith in public life. An elected official’s faith “is not something like a sweater that you put on and take off as a convenience,” he told the same audiences. “But should I be able to force it on somebody else? Of course not.”
People who have been coming to Mr. Huckabee’s rallies are mainly Christian activists. But among them are also awed young voters like Eric Crawford, 25, the manager of a coffee shop in Ames who went to a rally, waited patiently in line for 30 minutes before reaching Mr. Huckabee’s outstretched hand and then stood there, staring at the man of the hour.
“How you doing?” Mr. Huckabee said, smiling a toothy grin already labeled so Jim Nabors-like that their names appear in about 600 Google matches.
The child of a farming region where success is built more on regularity and repetition, Mr. Crawford seemed startled by Mr. Huckabee, the embodiment of Big Momentum.
“Just want to say you got my vote,” Mr. Crawford said before moving off.
He told a reporter later he was surprised at how “normal and regular” Mr. Huckabee seemed.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Huckabee is a polished performer who can be funny, endearingly self-deprecating and acute enough to move his audience to tears when he wants. With a voice that toggles between Tom Bodett’s comforting sound and Paul Harvey’s friendly authority, Mr. Huckabee speaks without notes and is never at a loss for a memorable phrase. (“We should put wingtips on the ground before we put the boots on the ground,” he says, describing how he would wage foreign policy. “We should be able to tell the Saudis we no more need their oil than we need their sand,” he says, describing his energy policy.)
But he does not light up a room the way some charismatic politicians, like a Barack Obama, might. He warms it up.
“I would say he’s more personable and congenial than anything else,” said Howard Taylor, 52, a community college instructor in West Des Moines. “He’s the candidate who believes certain things the way I do, and for the same reasons I do. He doesn’t have to be electrifying.”
Somehow, the very lack of magnetism and fieriness has become one of the hallmarks of Mr. Huckabee’s campaign persona. He is the social conservative who is “not mad at anybody,” the Christian who does not rail against “happy holiday” cards issuing from the White House, but just puts on a red sweater and makes a campaign advertisement with “Silent Night” playing in the background.
“I believe he’s not looking at polls, like some of these other politicians do, Hillary Clinton especially,” said Doug Butler, 48, a Marshalltown executive. “If he wants to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ well he’s going to say it. This controversy is ridiculous.”
Mr. Huckabee’s stock message is slightly more God-friendly in Iowa, somewhat more tax-averse in New Hampshire, but at the core it is always the same: that he, Mike Huckabee, is a man of faith. That he is the first in his family to have graduated from high school. That as one who has known economic hardship, he believes people care far less about the “left and right” of politics than they do about the “up and down” of economic mobility.
It is pretty much Reagan-era stuff, only funnier. He says Medicare obligations, if not “fixed,” will lead to financial ruin, but he makes the point by saying, “Wait till all these aging hippies find out they’ll get free drugs for the rest of their lives.”
His appeal is mainly to people who like the idea of “a man of convictions,” not one who behaves like a conventional, pandering politician. But there are times when even the purest of truth-speakers must bow before the demands of a campaign for the highest office.
“Who is your favorite author?” Aleya Deatsch, 7, of West Des Moines asked Mr. Huckabee in one of those posing-like-a-shopping-mall-Santa moments.
Mr. Huckabee paused, then said his favorite author was Dr. Seuss.
In an interview afterward with the news media, Aleya said she was somewhat surprised. She thought the candidate would be reading at a higher level.
“My favorite author is C. S. Lewis,” she said.