A populist charges across the Iowa prairie 

Propelled by church voters, Mike Huckabee zooms to the top in Iowa.

By John C. Williams

DES MOINES — On Jan. 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses, the front page of the local section of the Des Moines Register featured a story on Des Moines's recent growth: downtown d.m. became cool long before fear of frostbite.

The piece discussed how the capital city has sprung to life since the last presidential caucuses four years ago. A new library, a river trail and revitalized downtown have made Des Moines more palatable to the reporters who cover the quadrennial affair. But it also suggested something about the first-vote-in-the-nation status that Iowa's leaders so jealously guard: The Iowa caucuses are as much a tourist event for the press and political volunteers as an election.

“Iowa” — the state's name has become shorthand for the caucus process by which the state's delegates are chosen for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates — is essentially a huge fiesta that works roughly like this: Drag everyone involved out of the mundanity of quotidian existence, pack them into hotels, host campaign events at ballrooms with plenty of beer, then watch, charmed, as the little man of Iowa rushes into a small room to discuss the candidates, eat cookies and choose. The person Iowans anoint may not become the presidential nominee — the state has a mixed record of picking the eventual victor — but he will be thrust into the national spotlight during the hangover that follows.

This happens to be an ideal setting for a fundamentally unserious candidate like Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. (It didn't work so well for former Arkansan Sen. Hillary Clinton, who finished third in Democratic caucusing.)

Allow me to enumerate the ways that Brother Mike managed to embarrass himself in the previous weeks without getting much more than a slap on the wrist from voters or most of the press. He professed ignorance of one of the most important foreign policy stories of the year when he couldn't tell a questioner what the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was. He suggested that we need to seal our border with Mexico in order to thwart a terrorist attack from Pakistan — a nice sound bite, perhaps, but one totally divorced from the reality of the two issues it conflates. He held a confusing press conference to denounce his own negative campaign ad before playing the ad for reporters — which, many said, was a sly move to deal rival Mitt Romney a rabbit punch without seeming to do so himself. (OK, the press flagged him on this one — they don't like being taken for morons.)

But such mistakes apparently do not make a candidate politically irrelevant, at least not this one. Huckabee reamed the competition last Thursday night, taking 34 percent of the Republican caucus vote to Romney's 25 percent — the same Mitt Romney who outspent the upstart, as Huckabee constantly reminded voters on the stump, by a ratio of nearly 20 to 1. Would it help Huckabee to a stronger finish than expected in New Hampshire? No one knew (and the Times went to press before polls closed in New Hampshire Tuesday night, Jan. 8), but it's been an unusual year. The general thinking was that the religious voters who meant so much to Huckabee in Iowa would be in shorter supply in the more secular Granite State.

The Huckabee story sounds good. It sounds real good: The candidate who last year had less of a shot at getting the nomination than Big Bird rides on the backs of common people — well, about 40,000 of them — to vault himself into the national political elite. That's what democracy is all about, right? The process of people emerging from back-breaking labor in the cornfields in order to trek through the snow to choose the next president — that's the full-throated voice of the masses, ja?

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