Huckabee Fights Back

Under assault from Romney, the nice candidate gets less so.

DES MOINES, Iowa—Fortunately, my tape recorder didn’t freeze on the steps of WHO–TV as I waited for Mike Huckabee to emerge from his Meet the Press appearance. My hand certainly froze. My pen stopped working. But my digital recorder captured Huckabee’s shots at Mitt Romney. “If a person is dishonest in order to get a job, do you believe that he will be honest if he gets the job?” Huckabee asked about the charges Romney has made about him in a television commercial. He refused to say, when asked, that he would endorse Romney if he were the eventual GOP nominee.

As Huckabee talked to the small clutch of reporters bundled in parkas outside the TV station, he didn’t look like a man under pressure. Standing with his hands behind his back in just his blue suit—perhaps to show that he was tough enough to go coatless—he repeatedly said the Romney attacks were dishonest, but he said he could handle them. He’d been in tougher fights in Arkansas. “I want my people to know these attacks shouldn’t shake their confidence because it hasn’t shaken mine,” he said.

I was stamping my feet with my colleagues in Des Moines’ cold morning fog because this was going to be my only shot at Huckabee all day. The 11 a.m. church service that had been on Huckabee’s schedule had been canceled. Well, not canceled, exactly. It was never supposed to be on the schedule, said his aides. But with no other public events for the day and 96 hours before the caucuses, the cancellation looked like a sign of disarray in the camp of a candidate who has hit a tough patch. “Nothing unusual going on, though people are trying to make it so,” said Huckabee’s Iowa campaign manager, Eric Woolson, about the schedule change. (Still, someone will not be able to resist the alliterative opportunity to write about the Baptist in a bunker.)

Huckabee is losing his lead in the polls. The last three show that Romney is either ahead or has pulled even. (With the Democratic race a dead heat, this now makes the entire political landscape in Iowa too close to call.) Huckabee is suffering for a few reasons. In addition to Romney’s ads, which attack him for raising taxes as governor and being soft on crime and illegal aliens, the anti-tax group Club for Growth has spent $500,000 in anti-Huckabee ads too. Huckabee has also had recent missteps on foreign policy, including an errant attempt to link the crisis in Pakistan to immigration and claiming he has the support of foreign-policy gurus who say they’ve never talked to him.

To fight back, Huckabee is going to spend Sunday making new ads. “It’s time to respond and set the record straight and tell the truth,” he said.

Three weeks ago when Romney was behind in the polls, he promised that the new front-runner would not be able to survive the “agonizing reappraisal” phase that comes after a candidate becomes the flavor of the moment. Romney has helped usher in that reappraisal of Huckabee. The question now for Huckabee is how far he will fall. The social conservative voters who like him are usually not easily swayed once they’ve put their conviction behind a candidate they consider one of their own, but the latest MSNBC poll shows that Romney now has the support of 27 percent of the state’s evangelical Christian Republicans, up sharply from 8 percent several weeks ago. Though voters are still making up their minds, this is great news for Romney. He’s not only knocking votes off Huckabee, but they’re coming to him from a constituency that has had previous concerns about him.

After Huckabee left the press on the steps of the studio, he rode off to pick up his wife and attend the planned church service at the Cornerstone Family Church. According to one person who was there, pastor Dan Berry spoke at length about perseverance—staying in the game and keeping up the fight. It’s not how you start the race that is important, he said, it’s how you finish. He drew an analogy to the ironman marathoner who collapsed at the finish line. The devil doesn’t care how long you’re in the race. He only cares about knocking you down. The pastor was, of course, talking about the walk of Christian faith but he could have been talking about Huckabee’s political journey in Iowa.