In early 2008 a Republican candidate shocked the political world by surging to an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses, instantly going from long shot to party favorite in the blink of an eye. That candidate was Mike Huckabee.
While Huckabee ultimately succumbed to Sen. John McCain in the race for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, a number of GOP candidates are hoping to reprise the Huckabee game plan this winter in Iowa. Leading the charge to become Huck 2.0 is Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. So too is fellow North Star State native Tim Pawlenty. But trying to tear out a page from the Huckabee playbook in Iowa is easier said than done.
Huckabee's stunning run in Iowa resulted from a number of key factors. The former Arkansas governor managed to combine his unique personality, trademark sense of humor, conservative values and evangelical support to make a lot of noise in the Hawkeye State.
According to one Republican operative in Iowa, that combination will not be easy for either Pawlenty or Bachmann to duplicate.
“Huckabee was a lightning-in-the-bottle moment,” the source said. “He was able to capture the right emotion at the right time and ride it to victory. Pawlenty and Bachmann want to ride that kind of wave and get to where Huckabee was, but neither of them are Huckabee.”
It all started for Huckabee at the Ames Straw Poll in the summer of 2007. Huckabee came in second in Ames with 18.1 percent of the votes, trailing only Mitt Romney, who had heavily outspent all his rivals. But the silver medal that day felt like gold to Huckabee.
“Obviously, this was an incredible day and victory for us,” Huckabee said afterwards. “What happened for us today was stunning.”
Before Ames, Huckabee's chances looked bleak. In the days before the straw poll, the Huckabee campaign started packed up their Iowa headquarters, even loading up the staff’s computers into boxes. His aides feared he could finish as low as fourth. But his surprise finish in Ames changed everything. He steamrolled to victory in caucuses that winter.
If anyone can tap into Huckabee's large Iowa fan base, it would appear to be Bachmann, who has rocketed up in polls in recent weeks. The darling of the Tea Party, she shares many of the same traits that made Huckabee so popular: her outsized personality, her popularity with evangelicals and her claim of strict adherence to the Constitution all echo of Huckabee. She can count former members of the Huckabee team among her ranks, namely her campaign director, Ed Rollins, and her press secretary, Alice Stewart. Barring a setback in the next few weeks, she will enter Ames riding an impressive wave of momentum.
Hoping to change all that is another key player in Iowa: Pawlenty. Despite his campaign's struggles in recent weeks, the former Minnesota governor plucked none other than Huckabee’s daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to run his Hawkeye State operation. Four years ago, Huckabee Sanders was her father's national political director when he won the caucuses.
“I’m delighted to join the governor and first lady in Iowa, which holds a special place in my heart,” she said upon joining the Pawlenty team. “It’s clear to me that Gov. Pawlenty has what it takes to unite the party, unite the country and beat President Obama.”
Pawlenty’s team makes no bones about the fact that it wants the backing of Huckabee’s supporters.
“When Huckabee supporters learn about Gov. Pawlenty’s consistent record as a social conservative and his record of cutting taxes and spending, we will do very well,” Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant predicted.
That goal of attracting Huckabee's supporters is not Pawlenty's alone. After all, candidates know that it is a recipe for success in Iowa. The question is: Who can duplicate it?