Look for the Republican front-runner in Iowa the night before the caucuses, and you'll find him in Burbank, Calif. With less than 24 hours to go until the caucuses, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee chose -- oddly -- to leave Iowa, fly to California, and appear on "The Tonight Show."
Political experts puzzled over Huckabee's decision at a critical moment on the ground in Iowa. But aboard his bus with Chuck Norris -- the action star who backs him -- at his side, the candidate said it makes perfect sense.
"If I can be on 'The Tonight Show,'" Huckabee said, "I'll be speaking to more people in Iowa in that brief period of time that I can get to in the time that I'm going to be out in California and back."
Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, Huckabee's main rival in Iowa, mocked the appearance as a stunt. "I guess he's more focused on the caucus in L.A. than the caucus in Iowa," he said.
It's all part of the bitter, down-to-the-wire battle between Huckabee and Romney for victory in the caucuses tomorrow night. Down the home stretch, Huckabee has stumbled, after coming out of nowhere to rocket to the top of the GOP pack late last year.
Today, Huckabee had another bad moment. He did not seem to know he would have to cross the striking TV writer's picket line to appear on Jay Leno's show.
"But my understanding is there's a sort of dispensation given to the late-night shows, is that right?" he said to reporters.
Unfortunately there is not, and Huckabee choosing "The Tonight Show" over staying in Iowa may be a bad move for reasons other than crossing the picket line. Huckabee's sizable lead in Iowa has evaporated. One reason is that Mitt Romney put his multi-million dollar campaign machine into high gear and went negative -- a tactic that seems to be working.
In a recent ad, he criticized Huckabee's record on immigration and continued to hammer Huckabee on his record as Arkansas governor, and on his criticism of President Bush's foreign policy. Huckabee seems to have been lashing out at Romney personally but denies that it is an unfair attack.
"I don't know that we called him a liar," Huckabee said. "But the word 'dishonest' was intentionally deployed because it is dishonest if you say something that you know isn't true and you blatantly misrepresent attacks."
The name-calling did not work for Huckabee, whose lead kept eroding, and who on Monday seemed to dig himself into a deeper hole. He called a press conference where he was planning to unveil his own harshly negative ad campaign. He then said he had a change of heart just minutes before and ordered his staff to pull the ads from TV, but then continued to play it for reporters anyway. That was a move that many are saying guaranteed him free airtime for the negative ad. Reporters laughed out loud at what many saw as a naked ploy, but Huckabee insists he does not mind.
"I think people respect the fact that I knew I was going to get laughed at, jeered by the press," said Huckabee. "I knew that a lot of people would say, 'You're an idiot, hit him back, hit him back harder.' You know what I think people look for in a President, I think somebody who's got the guts to say this is what I think is right and I'm doing it."
Norris got so angry about the controversy that he came back to Iowa for Huckabee, and leapt to his defense.