The spotlight on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee just got a bit brighter.
That could explain why he was grinning as he strapped on a bass guitar and stood Friday night on the same stage where Buddy Holly played his last concert.
“We want to show that conservatives, Republicans, Christian believers can have as much fun as anybody else in the whole world,” he told a festive and decidedly well-behaved crowd at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.
As Huckabee and his cover band, Capitol Offense, were being introduced, Iowa campaign chairman Bob Vander Plaats gave the audience news of a new national poll from Rasmussen Research.
It showed that, finally, after a long year straddling the line between the first and second tiers of the crowded Republican contest, Huckabee had broken into double-digit percentages and slipped into fourth place, just ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
This “surge,” as supporters gleefully called it Friday night, came after Huckabee’s strong showing at a “Values Voters” event this month and after the sudden departure of a fellow social conservative, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, from the race.
He’s starting to make noise, and all of a sudden the national media isn’t just looking at the lead singers in the GOP band, like former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona or Romney.
Now eyes are on the bass player, Huckabee.
His fans are going wild. But harsh critics are starting to shout, too.
In the past few weeks, when Huckabee’s national profile and campaign fund-raising have grown exponentially, he also has come under renewed fire from the pro-business wing of the Republican Party base.
That’s because he’s trying to add some new tunes to the old GOP repertoire.
A Baptist minister, Huckabee brings out the family-values themes that some social conservatives say have been missing from the top tier of the 2008 field. He preaches against abortion, against gay marriage and talks about a nation “given to us by God’s providence.”
But some conservatives consider him less than orthodox when it comes to fiscal issues.
Huckabee points to 90 times when he lowered taxes during his 10-1/2 years as Arkansas governor. But critics say he compromised conservative principles by raising taxes to repair Arkansas’ roads, supported Internet sales taxes and appears too willing to compromise with Democrats to expand the size and cost of children’s health insurance programs.
In a scathing Wall Street Journal opinion piece last week, author John Fund quoted former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens saying of Huckabee: “He fought my efforts to reform the National Governors Association and always took fiscal positions to my left.”
Huckabee, often portrayed as a social conservative and economic populist, puts a brave face on the attacks.
“I’m a hunter,” he said. “I can tell you now, you never put the cross hairs on a dead carcass. … So the fact that we’re kind of being aimed at is a sign of life for us.”
The new poll numbers — combined with some straight-ahead versions of classic rock songs on Friday night — have given Huckabee’s supporters new bounce in their dance steps.
“There’s a clear surge,” said Bill Stemmons, 60, who moved from Oklahoma to Iowa to volunteer for Huckabee, a man he calls “a person of conviction.”
“I’m not politically naive,” Stemmons said. “I know it’s a long shot, but it’s the right thing to do. And now it’s bearing fruit. If I wanted a sure winner, I’d probably be with one of the big-money guys.”
Even with his recent fund-raising boost — more than $800,000 this month — Huckabee’s biggest challenge is to catch up to front-runners who already have raised tens of millions of dollars. Otherwise, even a surprising showing in Iowa, the first-in- the-nation caucus state, might not be able to be sustained nationally.
Campaign volunteer Rudy Carey, 72, a retired salesman from Des Moines, said people need to look at what Huckabee has done on a shoestring budget.
“He doesn’t have the big budget,” Carey said, standing on the dance floor of the Surf Ballroom. “But with small bucks he makes big waves.”
(Read daily dispatches from the “Back Roads to the White House” blog at: http://blogs.rockymountainnews.com/denver/sprengelmeyer/)