WEST DES MOINES, Iowa, 9:08 p.m. — Underneath a deck of gaudy turquoise and hot-pink stage lights at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, Mike Huckabee seems strangely out of place. His is a candidacy that never should have made it this far. As the adage goes, politics does not favor the decent. Journalists in front of the twin banks of TV cameras jostle uneasily with exuberant supporters as if they are not quite sure whether to take the short man standing next to Chuck Norris seriously.
“If we win on Thursday, we’ll make political history,” Huckabee says. “We’ve been outspent 20 to one. And now folks like you have a chance to take this country back for people like us — people who are in politics not just because we’re mad about what’s going wrong in the country but because we love what’s going right.”
His congregation is equally unlikely. Troupes of high-school students mingle with well-heeled older men and women who lean against the rails of the dance floor wearing Huckabee buttons. A security guard near the back wall estimates the crowd’s size at 700. Later in the night, Huckabee will claim 2,000 attendees. They come from all over. One family drove up from Arkansas. Sisters Jill and Jana Duggar, 16 and 17 years old, aren’t old enough to vote, but they came up from Little Rock with their family to support Huckabee in his final push.
“We like Mike,” Jill says. “We know he’s pro-life, and that’s important to us because we have a large family. And he’s a strong Christian.”
Huckabee begins his stump on a low note, thanking the people of Iowa for their faith in him and his unlikely candidacy. But then he builds. Upon a steady drumbeat of social-conservative anthems — the protection of marriage as being between a man and a woman, the defense of the unborn infant and the maintenance of an “awesome military force” to protect the United States — he works the crowd into a rhythm. Syncopating every few measures with a joke or a one-liner, Huckabee moves from his platform to his upbringing to his faith before closing with a modest request of the assembled.
“It would be the highest honor of my life, not to rule, but to serve,” he says. “I’m asking you not to elect me to the ruling class, but to the servant class.”
Then, in a classic Huckabee moment, the former governor hands the microphone to his wife and ducks backstage to gear up. He’s playing with the band — the Boogie Woogers — tonight, and wife Janet works the crowd until the opening number.
“Folks, not only does Mike Huckabee want to be president of the United States, he wants to have a good time,” she says with a thick Southern drawl. “Everybody says Baptists can’t dance, but I say as long as they keep one foot on the ground, they’re ok.”
The band opens with “Sweet Home Alabama” before moving through a set laden with classic-rock essentials. Saxophonist Mitch Smith says after the set that the governor “nailed” the bass line. “He laid it out, he laid it out real well. And he was having a good time,” Smith says.
Pianist Dan Boddicker agrees.
“It was a riot. When I first heard about Mike coming here, I thought, ‘I’d love to play with him.’ It shows we can all have fun.”