DES MOINES, Iowa -- Despite having to prepare for a debate far across the state on Dec. 15, four Republican presidential candidates -- Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum -- came here to Des Moines the night before for the premiere of a movie. Perry thought the event so important that, even though he was campaigning in western Iowa, he hopped a plane at the last minute to fly to Des Moines for the event, and then turned around and headed back for the Fox News debate in Sioux City.
Of course, the candidates -- all strongly pro-life -- wanted to associate themselves with social conservatives, and they all jumped at the chance to speak to 1,200 of them at one time. But each also wanted to associate themselves with the still-popular Huckabee. Nobody will win the Huckabee primary this year -- he has said he won't endorse a candidate during the primary and caucus season -- but all hoped a little of Huckabee's approval would rub off on them.
In an interview before the program, Huckabee denied any regrets about not running himself. "A lot of people have said, 'Gosh, you would have had a real opportunity here,'" Huckabee said. "Maybe. I don't know. But the decision I made was based on the fact that I saw a divided party. I did not see a lot of money lining up behind me. I've been there, done that when you try to run for president, where somebody has $20 to your $1, and it's a very, very uphill battle. We'll have a good candidate, we'll all get behind him, but I determined that it probably will not be me this time."
"Well, I mean, that's what I decided then."
"So you're not open to a draft?"
"No, I think all the doors are well closed. I don't think I feel a draft at all."
Huckabee, a favorite of social conservatives in 2008, also reflected on the troubles of some candidates vying for social conservative support. Asked why Bachmann failed to capitalize on her victory in the Aug. 13 Ames straw poll, Huckabee said:
"The moment of that took her to Florida and all over the country, and not here. Once the baby is born, you better put a warm blanket around it and feed it real good. And if you don't keep the baby warm and feed it, it may not make it. And that's my perception, that she did not camp out in Iowa for a month or six weeks and just nail this state down -- and then keep coming back."
As far as Perry's problems are concerned, Huckabee cited a "never-ending string of things that caused people to ask, is he ready, is he prepared." And Huckabee questioned whether it's possible to enter a campaign late and survive, as Perry tried to do.
"When I ran four years ago, the first several months of my campaign, I was out there talking to six or seven people in New Hampshire, South Carolina," Huckabee said. "There was no press corps following me, there were no bright lights. So mistakes that I made, I was able to correct long before I hit the big show. Rick had no minor league experience. He went straight to the hottest spotlight in America, and I think he had just not prepared himself for what it is to be a candidate on the national stage."
Asked why Santorum has failed to catch fire, Huckabee was out of theories. "I honestly don't know," he said, looking perplexed. "He's done everything that I think a person should do to win Iowa."
With so many ups and downs in the race, Huckabee suggested that Mitt Romney might benefit from a splintering on the conservative side of the party. But he still believes that, even with less than three weeks before the caucuses, another surprise or two might be in store.
After all, even when Huckabee took the lead in Iowa polls in late 2007, a lot of observers didn't believe he could actually win. "And no one predicted that I would win by almost 10 points," Huckabee said with a laugh. "Frankly, that shocked me."
(Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.)