After his second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll, Mike Huckabee emerged as the mainstream media's favorite conservative. "For a Joke-Telling Candidate, a Second-Place Finish" purred a big New York Times profile, complete with photos of Mike playing the guitar with his band Capitol Offense. The Washington Post's photo captured Huckabee jamming with an Elvis impersonator. "Hardball" host Chris Matthews introduced him as "Cinderella man." "What's it like to come in second to a guy that spent $2 million and apparently was hiring volunteers at a thousand bucks a pop?" Matthews asked.
Given the latest CBS News poll shows exactly 1 percent of GOP primary voters currently prefer someone other than Rudy (38 percent), Thompson (18 percent), Romney (13 percent) and McCain (12 percent), one can be forgiven for wondering what the heck all the Huckabee fuss is about.
Well, truth is, Huckabee is easy to like. What is it with Arkansas? How can one small town called Hope produce in quick succession two of the most affable retail politicians in recent American history?
Of all the gazillion presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee is the only one out on the campaign trail who seems to be having a good time. "I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anyone about it," is one of his signature lines.
Some others of recent vintage:
"I was the first governor in America to have a concealed handgun permit -- so don't mess with me!" Huckabee told a Washington, D.C., convention.
In West Des Moines, Huckabee invited Republicans to join him for a Q-and-A. "What it really stands for is 'questions and avoidance,'" he quipped. "I do my best not to say anything that would end my political career."
As a cell phone interrupted his talk: "If that's Dick Cheney wanting me to go on a duck hunt, tell him I'm not doing it," he said.
On corruption in Arkansas politics: "It got to be where the five most feared words for an Arkansas politician were: 'Will the defendant please rise.'"
How funny is Huckabee? So funny that when he goes on "The Colbert Report" he has Colbert in stitches. It's not easy to out-do the host on that show.
Huckabee is also a former governor with at least as solid a record of accomplishment as the last band-playing former Arkansas governor to run for president.
Why isn't a fabulous campaigner like Huckabee in the first tier of candidates?
Everyone knows the answer: money. In this year's second quarter, Rudy Giuliani raised $17 million and spent $11 million; Mitt Romney raised almost $14 million and spent close to $21 million. Even McCain, his campaign in a tailspin, raised over $11 million (and spent $13 million). Huckabee? He raised $763,610 and spent $702,622.
In Iowa, Huckabee tried to turn his immense underdog status into an advantage: "I can't buy you -- I don't have the money," Huckabee told Iowa straw poll voters. Then he frowned, "I can't even rent you."
But the failure of such a talented pol to fund his campaign tells a not-so-funny tale of the great gaping hole in the center of the so-called movement of Christian conservatives into politics: They do not yet have the networks, or the structures, to finance a champion of their own.
And that explains a lot about why so many social conservatives, after contributing to so many electoral victories, still feel like the unloved stepchild of GOP politics -- beggars can't be choosers.