Reporting from Grand Rapids, Mich. — Team Huck rolls into the bookstore like a NASCAR pit crew, red shirts adorned with the corporate logos of Mike Huckabee's website, his speaker's bureau and his publisher. "Huck" is emblazoned on their epaulets.
They strip the protective wrapping off the large lectern that they install at all such appearances. Huckabee doesn't sit at tables. He stands, as a president would, even to sign books. And sign he does: as many as 600 copies of "A Simple Christmas" per hour, racking up even more sales. There is no time lost on opening remarks.
Where presidential hopefuls once traveled the country courting party bosses and county chairmen, today they often choose a different approach -- the national book tour. As practiced by Huckabee, Sarah Palin and others, it has become a low-risk, high-reward form of virtual campaigning.
The author-politicians can operate in an environment more tightly controlled than an official run for office. They can focus on building personal ties to their most passionate supporters, independent of local party officials. They can sidestep the national media in favor of generally hospitable local coverage.
A payoff either way
After all, they're in town to talk about books, not issues. And their tomes, packed with homespun anecdotes, are largely personality-driven.
"You stay close to the action, but not close enough to be responsible for any of it," said Republican image consultant Brian Kirwin. "It's not a press conference or an interview that can be edited later."
What's more, if the run for office doesn't pan out, there's still a big payday to be had from a bestseller.
In the case of Huckabee, the conservative former governor from Arkansas, it's a paean to Christmas and his own humble beginnings. Onetime Alaska Gov. Palin is plugging "Going Rogue," the sharp-edged, score-settling account of her 2008 vice presidential campaign. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who like Huckabee sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, is scheduled to have a book out next spring. Titled "No Apology: the Case for American Greatness," it is expected to focus more on issues and policy themes.
The potential 2012 GOP hopefuls are following the lead of Barack Obama, who three years ago used his book "The Audacity of Hope" as a springboard to his presidential run.
But Huckabee and Palin are taking it to another level. They're pushing their personas, testing what might be called their commercial appeal, with a foot each in the camps of politics and pop culture.
Besides promoting his book, Huckabee has a weekly television program on Fox News Channel, does radio commentary and gives speeches. While Palin's book tour is just getting started, she too has invested time in speaking engagements, and recently sat for interviews with Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey.
"God bless 'em," said Rex Elsass, a GOP political consultant based in Ohio. "It's good business, and it's good politics."
In fact, Palin's day here last week -- she signed books for more than 1,000 fervent fans -- resembled a campaign stop. She arrived in a brightly painted bus emblazoned with an image of her book's cover and prominently featuring logos for Facebook and Twitter.
She made a few remarks, shook some hands and gave a brief interview to "Access Hollywood." The book, Palin said, allows her supporters to read her words "unfiltered" -- as with her messages on Facebook and other social networks.
In Michigan, Palin seemed less a politician than a product, with her own down-to-earth marketing message. She sat at a table, eye level with her fans.
Although the book appearances are an altogether different animal than a campaign operation, Elsass said, they do come with some drawbacks.
The tightly tailored nature of the tours does not leave Palin and Huckabee time to schmooze local party leaders or mingle with fundraisers. "It frustrates a lot of people," Elsass said.
Right now, the potential GOP candidates are "totally controlled by their business interests," he said. "I think a political agenda is totally secondary."
While Huckabee and Palin are playing an outside game, others are working on the inside -- especially potential 2012 candidate Tim Pawlenty, the GOP governor of Minnesota.
The traditional tack
Romney also is taking a more traditional tack, focusing for the most part on delivering policy speeches and strengthening his ties with the GOP establishment. "Romney's doing it from where he's more comfortable," Kirwin said. "He's a fundraiser. He's staying in the minds of the insider base."
Such an approach probably won't lead to the kind of blockbuster sales Huckabee's and Palin's books are ringing up.
Will Weisser, vice president of Penguin Books, Huckabee's publisher, called it a boom year for right-leaning publishers.
Earlier in the decade, Penguin created a special imprint, Sentinel, to appeal to conservative readers. And having Democrats in power, he said, is good for business.
"Just about the worst year for conservative books overall was 2008, the last year of the [George W.] Bush administration," Weisser said. "As soon as President Obama came into office, it was renewed with vigor."
Huckabee last week seemed completely at ease on his book tour, never straying far from playing the pitchman. "I think if everyone reads and buys my Christmas book, that will solve most of America's problems," he joked.
With a practiced eye on the clock, he never spent more than 10 seconds with any fan, but each got the lingering handshake and firm look in the eye that conveyed Huckabee's sense of their importance.
"I think what people see in my stories, they'll see in their own," he said, maintaining focus on the book. And "they'll see they don't have to have a TV show or a radio program to make a difference."
But having those things, plus a bestseller, doesn't hurt.