DES MOINES — Wearing a red Christmas sweater, Mike Huckabee took the stage inside the cavernous Val Air Ballroom here Tuesday night. Soon he was quoting the prophet Isaiah and asking the more than a thousand people in the room to pray for God's wisdom before taking part in today's Iowa caucuses.
With that, Huckabee introduced his highest-profile supporter, Chuck Norris, a movie star known for on-screen violence that has drawn rebukes from the kind of conservative Christians who support Huckabee's Republican candidacy. When Norris was done, Huckabee grabbed his bass guitar and joined a band in playing several rock 'n' roll classics, all of them secular. "Who says Republicans can't have fun?" he said.
This blend of sacred and secular is the essence of the former Arkansas governor's appeal. With apologies to Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Buffett, who put the sentiment in song, Huckabee is at once a little bit Sunday morning and a little bit Saturday night.
He's the former Baptist preacher who loves pop culture. (He appeared on shock jock Don Imus' show and made stump speech references to Britney Spears and Tonya Harding.) He's a rock 'n' roll devotee (he once pardoned the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards for a traffic violation and played in a band called Capitol Offense) who takes a hard line against sin.
Beyond that, Huckabee has portrayed himself as an underdog, even as he has soared in the polls. He talks in nearly every speech about his humble beginnings, how he was the first in his family to graduate from high school, how his name didn't open doors, how he didn't attend fancy schools.
Such talk about supposedly overwhelming odds is common in politics. Huckabee's real break from Republican orthodoxy is his economic populism. This Republican denounces Wall Street and high executive pay.
Huckabee says all of this -- the populist broadsides, the Bible quotations, the pop culture jokes -- without changing his smile or his upbeat tone. As he plucks his bass inside the ballroom, the other musicians jump and dance around. Huckabee stays still, holding his bass almost upright. He keeps both feet on the floor.