DES MOINES, Iowa Republican Mike Huckabee has capitalized on his resume as a Southern Baptist minister and staunch conservative to make a big impression on evangelical Christians and vault to a surprising second place in polls in Iowa despite little spending and less campaigning than many rivals.
He's gotten their attention. Yet, GOP officials wonder if he's on a path to reprise the 1988 performance of televangelist Pat Robertson, who shocked people with his second-place showing here but never got closer to the White House.
Huckabee's down-home style has proven effective, as has a record that many see as untainted by nuances and switches.
"I honestly feel that he is the one candidate who sincerely believes what he says," said Teresa Garman, of Ames, a retired state legislator and veteran anti-abortion activist who remains undecided. "There is no finger in the wind there."
Last summer, Huckabee stunned many with a second-place showing in a big Republican straw poll, and surveys suggest he's made continuing gains in Iowa where caucuses Jan. 3 will launch the presidential nominating season. A new Washington Post-ABC News survey shows him at 24 percent of Republicans questioned, compared with 28 percent for rival Mitt Romney.
Huckabee's up from about 8 percent last summer, while Romney has remained virtually flat.
A closer look shows Huckabee being backed by 44 percent of evangelical Protestants, who make up four in 10 Republican caucus goers.
"He is articulate and articulates the conservative message very well," said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance. Huckabee has made deep inroads in the evangelical community with an upbeat campaign style and a message and resume tailored for the community," he said. "Romney has spent far more money in Iowa than Huckabee or any of his other rivals, yet the new survey shows a very competitive race.
"I think Romney and Huckabee will end up in the top two," said Scheffler. "I don't know what order they will be in."
The surge may serve Huckabee well in a couple of ways, because caucus-goers traditionally are loath to side with a candidate who can't win, regardless of purity on the issues.
"He's pretty much right on all the issues, but I don't think he can win," said Kim Ackerman, of Boone. Should the perception emerge that is really in the thick of the race, those sorts of views can change.
Huckabee is from Bill Clinton's home town of Hope, Ark. He was elected lieutenant governor of Arkansas, ascended to the governor's office in 1996, won election on his own in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002. During his tenure he was best known for losing more than 100 pounds and making a healthy lifestyle a key issue.
Some conservatives are leery of his views on taxes, pointing to his Arkansas record.
The Club for Growth, which advocates limited government and lower taxes, points out that as governor he increased taxes on sales, gasoline, cigarettes and nursing homes. He says he had little choice because of court-ordered spending increases or rising federal entitlement spending for programs "over which you don't have executive control."
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Ray Hoffmann said Huckabee isn't well known here but has surprised many with his political skills. Without much in the way of expectations, it's easy to live up to them, Hoffmann argued.
"People meet Huckabee and he's a likable kind of a guy," said Hoffmann. "People are surprised when they meet him about his ability."
Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said Huckabee's surge could reflect weakness in the other candidates and his courting of the evangelical base.
"He's definitely the most evangelical candidate in the race," said Goldford. That challenge is bad news for Romney, who has virtually bet the farm on Iowa, spending far more than his rivals, campaigning almost nonstop and flooding the state with field organizers.
"Romney has targeted evangelicals as well," said Goldford. "He hasn't closed the sale yet."
Huckabee's rivals have some hurdles to overcome with evangelicals. Romney is a Mormon, and that troubles some, along with charges that he's switched his views on issues like abortion. Rudy Giuliani is favors abortion rights and gay rights, while John McCain has had troubles with evangelicals since he labeled some leaders "agents of intolerance" in his 2000 campaign.
The problem facing Huckabee is how to build on any success in Iowa, with far less money than his rivals and almost no time to raise it after the caucuses. The front-loaded calendar of primaries and caucuses leaves virtually no time for capitalizing on an early success to generate money.
As of Sept. 30, Huckabee had raised $2.3 million, with the July-September period his strongest with $1 million collected. That was a paltry number compared to his better-financed rivals. Doing better now, Huckabee raised $1 million in October and is halfway to his $2.1 million goal for November.
"Is it really possible to run a grass-roots campaign any more?" asked Goldford, warning that Huckabee could be crushed when the candidates are forced to compete in larger states and in multiple contests where television holds the key.
Rivals concede that Huckabee is well suited for Iowa's opening test.
"The Iowa caucus situation is made for people who can campaign one-on-one and get to know a few folks and get a few people together and they can surprise the world," said rival Fred Thompson. "Obviously Huckabee is playing into that. I think I can, too."
For his part, Romney is busily lowering expectations.
"I've been saying for some time that it's going to be a close race, and Governor Huckabee has made it a close race for some time," said Romney. "It's going to get interesting in the last six weeks."