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GOP Presidential Candidate Huckabee Gets Boost

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to a contest of a different kind: Mike Huckabee has just had the best week yet in his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He's seen a bump in his poll numbers in Iowa, where he got a standing ovation at a state GOP dinner over the weekend. Better yet for the candidate, there was a big spike in his online fundraising.

NPR's Audie Cornish has been with Huckabee on the campaign trail.

AUDIE CORNISH: Mike Huckabee has stayed alive in the GOP presidential race because of supporters like Pastor Scott Wilson of Mason City, Iowa.

Pastor SCOTT WILSON (Huckabee Supporter): Mike Huckabee is my man. His values are my values. And I think he does a great job of reflecting middle America. You know, the evangelical Christian is going to very comfortable with Mike Huckabee.

CORNISH: And as the former minister and governor has inched up in the polls, other Iowa Republicans like Beverly Denny(ph) of Waterloo are giving him a second look.

Ms. BEVERLY DENNY(ph) (Iowa Resident): I suppose at first it was, you know, we want, you know, we want to get somebody in there that's going to win the opponent. So that's kind of the philosophy. And then you realize it doesn't matter; what matters is the person. And that he's gaining momentum.

CORNISH: Both Wilson and Denney were among the several hundred who showed up at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa to hear Huckabee play base guitar with his band, Capital Offense. The former Arkansas governor sports an American flag guitar strap and can scrunch his shoulders, pout and nod with the best of them. He doesn't sing but he does emcee, which gives him a chance to pitch the crowd.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): You're not just a part of a campaign that is struggling; you're a part of a campaign that is on fire and some of it is because some people gave us what we're going to sing about right now.

CORNISH: The tune: the old '50s hit "Money." The occasion: Huckabee announced that he'd raised more money online in the last week than he had all year - thanks to a second-place finish in the straw poll of Christian voters sponsored by the Family Research Council. And that $700,000 is almost as much as he raised in the whole third quarter.

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) The best things in life are free, but you can keep them for the birds and bees. Just give me money. That's it I want. That's what I want.

CORNISH: Getting the money to back up the buzz is key for candidates like Huckabee, says Drake University Professor Dennis Goldford.

Dr. DENNIS GOLDFORD (Drake University): He's caught in that trap of the electability question. You're not getting much money because we don't think you're electable, but we don't think you're electable because you're not getting much money. Huckabee has got to break out of that vicious circle.

CORNISH: Which means impressing people at the Iowa State party's annual Ronald Reagan Dinner was critical. Huckabee got his chance at that event Saturday night when the GOP's best-known presidential candidates - Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain - did not attend. So undecided Republican activists could give the once-over to candidates like Huckabee trying to break out of the pack and win over people like Iowa Christian Alliance Leader Steve Scheffler.

Mr. STEVE SCHEFFLER (President, Iowa Christian Alliance): I mean, as far as going a long distance, I think he has a couple big challenges. He has to, you know, have the ample money to go the long distance beyond Iowa, you know, if it's a realistic scenario after Iowa, you're going to have to have a lot of money to run TV ads simultaneously. So I think he's - he has a good message that resonates with a lot of people, but he's got a couple of challenges in terms of, you know, staff and money.

CORNISH: Paul Ellington of the Republican political action committee GOPAC says that he admires Huckabee's resourcefulness in the face of better finance rivals. But Ellington says these days the Arkansas governor isn't really being thought of as a top-of-the-ticket candidate.

Mr. PAUL ELLINGTON (President, GOPAC): Well, he's considered to be first tier, but he's also considered to be first choice as number two on the ticket from a lot of people. I mean, in my job I travel the country a lot and everybody, when you ask them their shortlist on vice president, he's always the first one mentioned.

CORNISH: But to make that happen, Huckabee needs to stick around a while. He needs money to buy ads and airtime and to beef up his ground troops in Iowa and elsewhere. Right now, he has eight paid staff in Iowa, four in other early states.

Mr. HUCKABEE: What we've been waiting for that's now beginning to happen is this sense of people finally saying, okay, we've been shopping around; wait a minute, here is a guy running. This is the guy that believes what we believe. He stands for what we stand for.

CORNISH: And Huckabee says he's already beat the expectations of many who thought he'd have dropped out by now. And with just about two months to go to the Iowa caucuses, he is making his move just in time.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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