SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee would seem to be the answer to their prayers, yet for many Christian conservatives in Iowa, he has not closed the deal for the Republican caucuses.
Do they still like Mitt Romney? Are they intrigued by Fred Thompson? As always, voter uncertainty comes with the Jan. 3 caucuses, now just a week away.
Huckabee, the former Baptist minister, is leading in the Republican polls here, though his advantage has narrowed. Perhaps, that’s due in part to the negative TV commercials Romney is airing.
“I think I’m leaning toward Governor Huckabee,” says Lori Brown, who works at an accounting firm in Sheldon. “I guess I’m not sure who else I really like. But he seems to be just a real guy. I’m a Christian, too, so I see eye-to-eye with him.
“At this point.”
On Huckabee’s final swing through Iowa before Christmas, many found him funny and charming, especially when he borrowed a bass guitar to play “Takin’ Care of Business” in the Sioux City High School auditorium.
“I thought he did a good job of emotionally connecting,” said Michael Andres, a college theology professor in Orange City. Andres is “warming to Huckabee,” although he has also been interested in Arizona Sen. John McCain among the Republicans and in Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.
“I didn’t know if there was a whole lot of substance,” Andres said of Huckabee. “He didn’t explain what he was going to do. I felt like he spent a lot of time separating himself from Romney.”
Huckabee is spending time responding to criticism from Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has flooded people’s mailboxes, telephones and televisions with negative information about the former Arkansas governor’s record on immigration and other issues. Romney has spent millions of dollars pumping up his own profile and organizing supporters.
Huckabee tells audiences he is being outspent 20-to-1 by Romney. In Orange City, he joked about mailboxes stuffed full of campaign mailings: “I know you normally look forward to Christmas cards this time of year.
This time, you go and — ‘Huckabee’s a bum, Huckabee’s a bum, Huckabee’s a bum, Huckabee’s a bum.’ “
“My wife could’ve told you that and saved the postage,” he said, to laughter.
But some of the criticism is sticking.
Of Romney, retiree Judie Cain of Council Bluffs, Iowa, says, “I like his take on immigration.”
“I’m on Social Security now, and I don’t like the idea that it’s going to immigrants when I paid in it all my life, and they just swam across,” says Cain. In fact, only legal immigrants are entitled to Social Security benefits and illegal immigrants pay millions of dollars a year in Social Security taxes.
“Now, I know Huckabee is probably a good candidate, too, but I don’t think he’s as intelligent,” she said.
Thompson, the “Law & Order” actor and former Tennessee senator, has the most ground to cover because of his late, sluggish entry to the race.
He brought a campaign bus to Iowa for the final two weeks of the campaign, with a short break for Christmas, but he hasn’t spent as much time as Romney or Huckabee in a state where, because of its first-in-the-nation caucuses, voters insist on face time with the candidates.
If people could see him, “I think they would follow right along with him,” says Bob Knowler, the county treasurer in Woodbury County, which includes Sioux City.
“He tells it like it is, he’s a straight talker and he’s got good ideas,” says Knowler, an early Thompson supporter. “I don’t know what he needs to do different. I don’t know whether starting late is hurting him. I don’t know what his problem is. We just know he’s not doing well in polls. But how much faith do you put in polls?”
Thompson’s biggest problem seems to be that Huckabee has taken his place as the easygoing, Southern charmer who could make anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, pro-gun voters comfortable, as opposed to Romney, who supported abortion rights before running for president, and Rudy Giuliani, who has supported abortion rights since he became mayor of New York in 1993.
At 52, Huckabee is younger and more energetic than the 65-year-old Thompson, and has obvious speaking skills from his years as a preacher.
Huckabee also seems nice, so nice that people often don’t notice a zinger. Instead of talking about Romney’s privileged upbringing, he says: “You know, growing up a Huckabee didn’t exactly open up all the doors for me as a kid,” he said in Sheldon, describing his hardscrabble upbringing. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, are you of the Huckabees of Hempstead County?’“
Not everyone is undecided. All Ed Krosschell, an Orange City retiree, needed was for Huckabee to rise in the polls.
“I like him because he’s a Christian, and he’s in the right community for that,” said Krosschell, who is retired from the Greyhound Corporation. “I was kind of up in the air when he was like an asterisk, like he said. I really didn’t know who to vote for. I was part of the Christian Coalition thing. I was waiting for the right thing to come along.”