Core strength for Huckabee is speaking but not speechifying
Mary Kathryn Shouse is part of the Mike Huckabee surge, having newly decided that the homespun former Arkansas governor is “the whole package” of policy and Christian values. And it doesn’t hurt that he delivers a speech without seeming like he’s delivering a speech.
“I felt that he was very in tune with his audience and that he was speaking to me, and not over my head,” Shouse, 42, said a few minutes after the GOP presidential candidate finished a 45- minute talk at a banquet hall in this town hugging the Mississippi River. “I thought it was very comfortable.”
If Huckabee’s campaign has a secret weapon, it could well be the candidate’s gifts as a communicator. Using Southern charm and storytelling, Huckabee’s stump speech is more entertainment than oratory. Sharp jabs are cloaked by a smile and a joke, and offered in a cadence reminiscent of a warm-talking preacher -- which he has been -- and a radio host -- which he also has been.
Huckabee enters the room, his name on a banner hung behind a lectern, but he doesn’t use the lectern as anything more than a place to rest his arm while he talks.
Huckabee is looking for an intimate engagement with a room full of people -- up to 200.
The overall effect is something like a political self-help guru willing to lead the way to a stronger, more faith-filled society.
Darrell Sather, 60, said he’s seen all the candidates “up close and personal,” but was nearly convinced after listening to a single Huckabee speech at a Coralville convention hall.
“I’m impressed with down-home, direct, honest speaking. I don’t get very impressed with the big words,” he said. " . . . God likes average people, and that’s why he made a whole bunch of us. That’s one of my values, and I think he reflects that.”
Huckabee tells the boyhood story of his father dragging him down to see the governor because “you may live your whole life and you may never get to meet a governor.”
He champions the middle and working classes, which he says are taken for granted by the “chattering classes” of Wall Street and Washington.
He is eager, he says, to go to work for the people.
Against that backdrop, specific policy details carry less significance, said Lyombe “Leo” Eko, 51, a naturalized citizen who came to the U.S. as a student from Cameroon nearly penniless and now teaches media law at the University of Iowa.
“I disagree with him on the tax issue . . . but I look for the global view of the man,” said Eko, who will be caucusing for the first time on Jan. 3. “Mike Huckabee is the personification of the American dream, to me.”
Vanessa B. Beasley, who teaches communications at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, traced Huckabee’s political use of narratives to President Reagan.
“It evokes emotion, makes people feel like they have some insight into what the candidate really believes,” she said. “It sounds a lot like what Ronald Reagan would do, particularly when the star of the story is the civilian, the everyday person who gives the rest of us some profound lesson on civics, or what it means to be a patriot.”
Huckabee’s stories connect with his audience -- even if there might be disconnects within the stories.
A favorite is the tale of Martha Cothren, a teacher at Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, who in August 2005 emptied her classroom of desks before her students arrived, then told them they would have to figure out how they could earn them. The students spent the day confused, sitting on the floor. During the final period of the day, military veterans acting on cue carried the desks into the classroom and, in Huckabee’s telling, Cothren told her students, “You don’t have to earn your desk ‘cause these guys, they already did. . . . You didn’t have to pay for your desk or pay for your books. They paid.”
It is taxpayers who pay for desks and books, but the story is meant to recognize the sacrifices veterans have made to defend Americans’ freedoms. Sather, a veteran wounded in the Vietnam War, focused on the patriotic message and didn’t care if the logic broke down.
“That was an incredible story,” Sather said. “That fills my heart a little bit to hear stories like that.”
In a speech in Coralville, Huckabee stressed his views on the sanctity of life. He also cited, as evidence that he’s not soft on crime, the fact that as governor of Arkansas he presided over 16 executions.
“The sanctity of human life goes to the heart and to the soul of our civilization,” Huckabee said. “Every human life has intrinsic worth and value, whether it’s in the womb or whether it’s in the hospital bed late in one’s 80s.”
Huckabee believes some lives aren’t worth protecting. In a November YouTube debate, Huckabee defended the death penalty as necessary because “some crimes are so heinous, so horrible” that they are “beyond any other capacity for us to fix.”
For many in the audiences he has drawn across Iowa, it’s the tenor of the speech that draws them in. And the steadfast faith.
“This is one of the things that has attracted me to him -- his nonthreatening, sort of low-key but still pretty powerful presentation,” said John DeBoef, an evangelical pastor from What Cheer, about 60 miles southwest of Iowa City.
In addressing criticism of a Christmas-week TV ad for blending faith and politics, Huckabee strikes an incredulous tone: People who would not care if he used “Jesus Christ” as a curse were complaining that he used the name in connection with Christ’s birthday.
His comment draws strong applause.
“He has the same values that we have,” said Don Phillips, 74, of Norwalk, who saw Huckabee speak in a packed Des Moines shopping mall community room. “If they’re going to run down his Christianity, that’s their problem, not his.”