A raucous Iowa caucus

The Wizard of Odds: Iowa begins the road to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul

The standing-room-only crowd suddenly jerked out of its slumber and burst into wild applause. Over in the corner, a gaunt man who looked to be three yee-haws! away from suffering a stroke bared his teeth in feral approval. I half-expected the ravenous mob to produce an actual saddle and take turns riding a manically bucking Thompson as part of a bizarre second-tier-candidate photo-op, but they did not. Instead, they fell silent and gazed slack-jawed toward the podium, eagerly awaiting the next crumb of bunkum.

"Our principles are under assault from the society we live in," Thompson continued in a courtly Southern drawl. "And we're not going to turn over the keys of this country to these folks." Once again, the crowd cheered. I distinctly heard someone whoop, "Amen!"

It was quintessential Thompson. Often criticized for possessing the work ethic of a welfare cheat and the charisma of a dead oak tree, the gruff 65-year-old managed to subtly fan the flames of Old White Male Rage by lulling his supporters to sleep, then jolting them awake.

Mike Huckabee preaches to the converts days before his Iowa victory
Matt Snyders
Mike Huckabee preaches to the converts days before his Iowa victory
John McCain eyes his antagonist as a pack of
voracious scavengers await fresh meat
Matt Snyders
John McCain eyes his antagonist as a pack of voracious scavengers await fresh meat

When it came time to field questions from the audience, a middle-aged white woman with close-cropped dark hair asked him the following question:

"I appreciate your tough stance against illegal immigrants. But what about the babies? Those that are born here? Are there policies you could make to deport them?"

Thompson shuffled his feet and deftly answered, "Well, I don't believe the president can change that with the stroke of a pen. I believe the courts have interpreted that as falling under the 14th amendment."

The woman wilted ever so slightly in her folding chair, visibly disappointed that her candidate wasn't willing to deport American babies for the crime of being born Hispanic.

There were no more whoops of "Amen!" the rest of the night.

THE POLITICAL STORY in Iowa this season was the unexpected ascension of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Written off early in the race as a second-tier pretender, the Huckster suddenly found himself battling Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the top slot in the Great Iowa Poll Dance.

To understand how Huckabee—a candidate with scant ties to the party establishment or the Wall Street set—could elevate from a distant fifth in Iowa (polling under 5 percent in August) to clear front-runner status (up to 35 percent by mid-December), you have to understand the unique campaign dynamics of the state.

Iowa is the Lost World of campaign politicking, a nostalgic bastion where meet-and-greets in town halls and diners can sway more voters than can TV spots or radio ads. In other words, personal charm trumps campaign spending here in Iowa. Or at least it can when deployed effectively.

And Huckabee pulled it off. Despite being outspent 20 to 1 in the state by arch nemesis Romney, Huckabee ransacked Iowa by wooing the evangelical base and fiscal moderates with a potent elixir of prairie populism and Judeo-Christian skullfuckery. It was a sight to behold.

A microcosm of this phenomenon was on full display on December 22 in Orange City at Northwestern College. Orange City is a sterile little town inhabited by noticeably depressed Dutch Calvinists. It's the county seat of Sioux County, which, in 2004, turned out 84 percent in favor of Bush. Not a single county in either Mississippi or Alabama turned out in such high numbers for Dubya. In short, Sioux County is the perfect habitat for a fundamentalist snake-oil salesman such as Huckabee.

Standing before the packed college theater, the Baptist minister held the microphone close to his mouth and eyed his flock. His aw-shucks affability and colloquial earnestness more than compensated for his underwhelming stage presence. (If you took Richard Nixon circa 1973, sheared his jowls with a meat cleaver, and filed 1.3 centimeters off the tip of his nose with a synthetic grindstone, you'd be left staring at a creature physically identical to Huckabee.)

Cooing in a Jimmy Stewart-esque inflection, he touched on all the right emotions:

• Anti-D.C. sentiment: "Too many times politicians go off to Washington and end up getting changed by the very institutions they were elected to challenge. I, for one, think it should it be the other way around."

• Reassuring populism: "We are all equal. We are not made unequal by our net worth, our IQ, the labels we hold, the cars we drive, or our ancestry. And I, for one, take comfort in that."

• Blood lust: "No more 'light footsteps doctrine' foreign policy. I, for one, advocate a 'both foots [sic] in your face' doctrine."

At that point, I expected Jesus Christ himself to descend from heaven, snatch the microphone, and say something like, "As the Prince of Peace, I've followed your Christian-themed campaign closely, which I, for one, find transparently hypocritical." Alas, He did not.

The secret to Huckabee's success is his ability to soften the edges of hardline conservative rhetoric with seemingly genuine compassion, thereby making his bunkum more universally palatable.

Huckabee's so good, it's easy to forget he's the same guy who, in 1992, suggested we quarantine AIDS patients. Who believes the world to be 6,000 years old, give or take a few decades. Who thinks an apocalyptic Jesus Fest is more likely than natural selection.

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