Can Huckabee go the distance?

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images) Until yesterday, I was a doubter of Mike Huckabee’s potential for broad-based appeal. No longer. After attending one of his rallies up in New Hampshire, my mind was changed — quickly. I attended Huckabee’s “chowderfest” event yesterday in the southeast New Hampshire town of Windham, where more than 600 people crowded shoulder-to-shoulder into a small school ...

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CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images)

Until yesterday, I was a doubter of Mike Huckabee's potential for broad-based appeal. No longer. After attending one of his rallies up in New Hampshire, my mind was changed — quickly. I attended Huckabee's "chowderfest" event yesterday in the southeast New Hampshire town of Windham, where more than 600 people crowded shoulder-to-shoulder into a small school gymnasium to see the Arkansas Republican and his traveling companion, Hollywood martial-arts star Chuck Norris.

To be honest, I was expecting a bunch of Christian conservatives looking for a little more salvation on their way home from church. I couldn't have been more wrong. Most of the attendees at Huckabee's event appeared to be moderate Republican or independent undecided voters. A man from Windham told me he was trying to decide between Huckabee and current New Hampshire Republican front runner John McCain. He didn't know much about Huckabee and had come to see him for the first time. By my guesstimation, he was hardly alone. Huckabee's stump speech was light on Bible thumping. And a brief pro-life riff drew applause from, maybe, one-third of the room. Instead, Huckabee sounded almost John Edwards-esque. His pitch was to disillusioned middle-class families, and it appeared to be working. His line on energy independence, for instance, drew an overwhelming roar. Ditto for his riff on tax reform.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images)

Until yesterday, I was a doubter of Mike Huckabee’s potential for broad-based appeal. No longer. After attending one of his rallies up in New Hampshire, my mind was changed — quickly. I attended Huckabee’s “chowderfest” event yesterday in the southeast New Hampshire town of Windham, where more than 600 people crowded shoulder-to-shoulder into a small school gymnasium to see the Arkansas Republican and his traveling companion, Hollywood martial-arts star Chuck Norris.

To be honest, I was expecting a bunch of Christian conservatives looking for a little more salvation on their way home from church. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Most of the attendees at Huckabee’s event appeared to be moderate Republican or independent undecided voters. A man from Windham told me he was trying to decide between Huckabee and current New Hampshire Republican front runner John McCain. He didn’t know much about Huckabee and had come to see him for the first time. By my guesstimation, he was hardly alone. Huckabee’s stump speech was light on Bible thumping. And a brief pro-life riff drew applause from, maybe, one-third of the room. Instead, Huckabee sounded almost John Edwards-esque. His pitch was to disillusioned middle-class families, and it appeared to be working. His line on energy independence, for instance, drew an overwhelming roar. Ditto for his riff on tax reform.

But perhaps the most refreshing thing about Huckabee is that he comes off as a likable and folksy guy. OK, maybe it’s a little cheesy. But it’s a refreshing change from Clinton and Obama, both of whom strike me as calculating politicians. Huckabee’s down-home feel makes it easy to dismiss him as a small-time southern wannabe. That’s a mistake. Like former President Bill Clinton, Huckabee is clearly one of those brilliant children of the poor rural south who possesses a sharp wit and a keen understanding of real Americans. At one point during yesterday’s event in Windham, a detractor in the back of the room interrupted, shouting repeatedly, “Why is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, your political advisor?” In a small room, days away from what is unquestionably the biggest election of his career, it was the kind of thing that could have shaken Huckabee off track. But he hardly missed a beat, calmly shooting back, “Don’t make me send Chuck Norris back there.” The audience chuckled.

Huckabee’s appeal on the stump is genuine. And, unlike events I attended for, say, Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, the same can be said of those who turn out to see him. The people at the Windham event appeared to be there out of genuine interest. Many waited in a makeshift receiving line to meet him afterwards. Yes, Huckabee’s campaign remains largely amateurish. He has few handlers. His event yesterday drew a healthy crowd, but it lacked television lighting, a press pen, and even the fancy signage and cheesy cheerleader chants that have come to characterize the rallies of candidates like Obama and Clinton. Contrast that to a brief rally for Hillary Clinton yesterday morning in Manchester that featured choreographed chanting by attendees who appeared to have been coerced into attending by campaign workers in persuasive phone calls the night before.

Huckabee’s doesn’t have much chanting. No emotional music proceeds his appearance on stage. There’s no rock-star lighting. But, his fans appeared to be there because they wanted to be, not because some campaign worker had convinced them to show up. Few or no supporters held signs or hoisted children on their shoulders, the kind of clichéd campaign antics that are common at other candidates’ events. Huckabee’s campaign may not be the most sophisticated out there. And let’s be honest, he’s unlikely to win in New Hampshire, or even come in second in Tuesday’s polls. But after seeing him in New Hampshire, it’s hard to dismiss him as a fluke. A third-place finish in New Hampshire will be enough to keep Huckabee rolling on down to South Carolina, where he has as good a shot as anyone at winning.

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