DES MOINES, Iowa — The former Arkansas governor in contention to win the Republican presidential caucuses here today, Mike Huckabee, is being mocked in some quarters as "the dope from Hope," but he can be downright wonky in a style reminiscent of another famous Arkansan, President Clinton.
At an event with Web loggers here this week, reporters spoke with a Huckabee strategist about the campaign's latest gaffe while the former governor launched into an off-the cuff, Clintonesque soliloquy about the education reform law known as No Child Left Behind, the benefits of music and art instruction, and even the structure of the human brain.
"Education is only a true education if we're developing both the left and right brain of the student," Mr. Huckabee told scores of bloggers listening in person and on the phone. "The left brain is great for math and science and all the logical forms of education, but knowing what to do with what a student has learned is as important as what they've learned. Music and art, teaching the stimulation of the creative side, is absolutely critical to a total well-rounded education."
As Mr. Clinton likely would have done, Mr. Huckabee went on to marshal numerous facts and anecdotes to advance his point. "Music students do 20 points better on SAT scores than nonmusic students. They learn foreign languages better," the former governor and presidential candidate said. "Take a room of 5-year-olds and give them a piece of paper and crayon and every one of them draws a picture. … When he's 15 that kid won't draw the picture or sing the song. Somehow the education system beat out of him or her the creativity that was innate in that student."
After more than five minutes, Mr. Huckabee wrapped it up, realizing that his inner wonk had perhaps gotten a bit carried away. "I can give a whole hour speech on this and I don't have time today," he said.
While Mr. Huckabee demonstrated his depth on education policy, he and his campaign have given numerous indications that they are not ready for prime time. His complete unawareness of the release of a major intelligence report on Iran that had been all over the news for 24 hours was embarrassing.
His decision to call off a negative advertising blitz, but to play the planned TV spot to reporters, prompted audible laughter from the national press corps.
Notwithstanding the gaffes, Mr. Huckabee is drawing large crowds and enthusiastic supporters. His background as a Baptist minister is appealing and comforting to large swaths of the Iowa population. However, he broadens his appeal by being a man of the cloth who is also willing to sling an electric bass guitar over his shoulder and belt out boisterous renditions of "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Blue Suede Shoes." Yesterday, Mr. Huckabee bucked the conventional wisdom by leaving Iowa for California in order to appear on NBC's "Tonight Show."
Mr. Huckabee wins points with voters for his candor and public sense of humor. At nearly every campaign event, he makes edgy jokes that most other candidates would shy away from.
He told one crowd this week to make sure that anyone who backed another candidate didn't make it out of the function hall's parking lot. He displayed no concern as a film star who is backing him, Chuck Norris, talked about "choking out" another contender, Mitt Romney.
Mr. Clinton predicted yesterday that Mr. Huckabee would emerge at the top of the Republican field when the results come in here tonight. "Governor Huckabee has got a little hometown pride going because it looks like the Iowa Republicans are going to give him the caucus," Mr. Clinton said, alluding to the fact that he and Mr. Huckabee both hail from Hope, Ark. The former president made the comments at a speech in Dubuque, Iowa, on behalf of Senator Clinton's presidential campaign.
Mr. Clinton said Mr. Huckabee's success came from bringing some playfulness and humor to a Republican field often speaking in gloomy terms about terrorism and immigration.
"I understand. He looks to me like the only one who can tell a joke. It's a pretty dark crowd," the former president said.
In a brief interview with The New York Sun, Mr. Clinton said he was not taken aback by Mr. Huckabee's surge in Iowa polls. "You know he was underestimated. He's got on well here and it doesn't surprise me," the former president said. "He's very conservative but not mad about it."
Another Republican hopeful, Senator McCain of Arizona, said Mr. Huckabee won many followers from the debates. "I think he came across as kind of the genuine article," the senator said. He said Mr. Huckabee got off the best single debate line of any candidate when he declared, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office."
Even if Mr. Huckabee wins in Iowa tonight, it's far from clear that his personality and populist message will have the national appeal to win him the nomination. "I'm impressed with him and wouldn't mind him being the vice presidential candidate," a retired auto body shop owner, Ken Green of Dubuque, said. "You can't not like the guy."