Salena Zito

Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee may have elevated his candidacy to his party’s upper tier -- at least in his and his supporters' minds -- but his choice of campaign accommodations and travel haven’t improved much.

He thinks a stay at a Holiday Inn is “luxurious.” It's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani thinking the same. And while his fellow candidates travel in large entourages neatly packed into convoys of black SUVs, Huckabee says he gives local cabbies and car-rental outlets lots of business.

“I finally put my foot down about subpar accommodations earlier this year,” said the former Arkansas governor. “I understand frugal and budget but there was a place my staff had me stay near Houston that was so bad that I was the only person in the hotel that did not have tattoos, metal objects piercing my face -- and wore sleeves.”

Meet Mike Huckabee -- the preacher-man from the South who, by some accounts, is beating the presidential-expectations game. He is the great communicator whom no one has heard about. That is, until now.

Huckabee is rising among the GOP candidates, not by money. (He has little.) Nor by establishment support. (He has none.) And not by slick television or radio ads. (Again, no money.)

Huckabee is there because he has earned it, says Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Harrisburg. “It’s pretty simple. This is a guy who brought the house down at the Values Voter Summit, wins or comes close to winning every debate, shocked everyone by placing second in the Ames, Iowa, straw poll and is now inching toward the top of the polls in the Iowa caucuses.”

Though he's still well behind poll-topping Mitt Romney. And facing growing criticism from some in the conservative establishment.

The Club for Growth's Pat Toomey says the party's "flirtation" with Huckabee "does a great disservice to the conservative movement" if it overlooks his "stunning record of big-government liberalism." And National Review editor Rich Lowry adds that "for all his eloquence, what Huckabee lacks, fundamentally, is a message."

But Gerow says Huckabee could be dangerous to the Democrats “because he can galvanize the base.” And Democrat strategist John Lapp says Huckabee would awake that sleeping giant -- the Republican base. He'd be the Democrats’ worst nightmare “if only he had money," Lapp says.

"His threat comes from all over -- his executive experience as a governor, his own personal success story. And he has the steadiest hand and is the most optimistic out of the GOP bunch.”


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.