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After-dinner candidate 

Good one-liners require simple and seemingly banal setups, then sudden twists.

First you say “take my wife.” Then you pause ever so slightly, not too short, not too long. That’s why it’s called timing.

Then, before your listeners have had time to consider any possibility other than that you’re citing your wife in an anecdote, you blurt “please.”

That’s offered as free instruction for Mike Huckabee — to help with his humor, not suggest that he offer his wife for taking.

Humor seems the real pursuit in his ostensible candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. He runs as the after-dinner candidate. Yet his comedy fares only marginally better than his politics.

His comic delivery the other day — recorded by C-SPAN — arrived like an Amtrak train, which is to say inevitably and late. He told an audience that experts had declared that the Republican presidential race was entirely about name identification and money. Well, he said, if that’s so, “then we ought to just nominate Paris Hilton.”

A punch line loses punch over such a long journey — from where you first saw it coming.

A sudden twist would have been “Anna Nicole Smith.” It would have darkened the comedy and broadened the point to suggest that a dead person could qualify by the superficial standards he was seeking to criticize. Some would have called that bad taste. But this came in remarks to the national Conservative Political Action Committee, commonly called CPAC. Ann Coulter also spoke. So it was an occasion for bad taste.

Huckabee and most of the Republican presidential candidates made supposedly important speeches last week to this red-meat outfit. We’re in the stage of the contest during which candidates, even if reasonable, must appear to their base not to be.

Over the long term, John McCain probably won by not showing up, considering what Coulter said about John Edwards. In an apparent reference to the real-life travails of an actor from “Grey’s Anatomy,” this vile woman said she couldn’t discuss Edwards because they make you go to rehab anymore if you use the word “faggot.”

Not all sudden twists are good.

Huckabee treated the event the way he seems to treat his campaign — as a tryout for a cable talk show. He seems to want to observe with would-be comedic commentary rather than compete seriously.

He said CPAC stood for “Conservative Political Anxiety Conference.” He said the theme of the conference ought to be “Dude, where’s my candidate?” In a swipe at rivals Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, he said we were witnessing more conversions on the road to Damascus “than a Syrian camel driver.”

(Some reports had him saying “cattle driver.” No reports took him very seriously.)

Most thought Romney won the day. Instead of one-liners, he delivered wham-bam political applause lines. It was a conservative manifesto via short, superficial sentences.

Romney seems to outdo Huckabee every time. Mitt’s hair is better. His face is more Rushmoresque. His bad jokes are fewer. He seems to want to play rather than provide color commentary.

He brought in supporters and won the straw poll. Giuliani was second. Then came the absentee McCain, Sam Brownback and Newt Gingrich, who isn’t even running.

Where was Huckabee? In “others getting less than 5 percent.”

They listened. They laughed a little. They voted for someone else, anybody else. Our Boy Mike seems merely a diversion, an interlude.

Another straw vote took place last week — in the northern part of South Carolina, an early-primary state where a Southern governor ought to have an advantage. Huckabee will explain that he didn’t work it, which is precisely the point. You had to look far down the list of candidates before you got to him. He trailed Giuliani, McCain, Romney, Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith and the guy from “Grey’s Anatomy” who went to rehab for calling a co-star the “F” word.

That’s a joke on those last three. I’m still trying to instruct Huckabee in sudden twists.

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