• VINTON, Iowa - If America is still a sucker for Southern-fried governors, aw-shucksing their way into the hearts of good-hearted, God-loving people, breezy as a summer day, folksy as homemade pie, then prepare for a long date with Mike Huckabee.
  • Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, is hot stuff on the presidential campaign trail. He's threatening to break into the top ranks of Republicans with the down-home charisma of the Southern Baptist minister he is and the record of bipartisan achievement he earned in more than 10 years as governor.
There's no more threataning, he is in the top ranks. Recent polls have already shown him tying for 2nd in national polls.
  • Huckabee's easy-listening message combines long-held social conservative principles on abortion and marriage with a plea for national unity; that last bit comes across like a short, pasty version of Barack Obama's. Like Obama, Huckabee insists that his message will bring new voters into the caucuses.
  • "The greatest problem we have is this country is so very divided and polarized," Huckabee said after touring a factory in Cedar Falls. "We are a house divided against ourselves. If this country doesn't quit seeing the polarization not only of its politics but of its

    culture, where people cannot even have a civil discourse over things about which they disagree, we're gonna have a hard time solving the problems that we really face."
  • He's occasionally iconoclastic: He criticizes GOP rivals who recite "RNC talking points" saying that the economy is humming. Working people, Huckabee says, know otherwise. He calls the environment "a spiritual issue." He's less interested in debating the causes of climate change than in focusing "on what we all agree on: Do we have a responsibility to leave the Earth in a better state than we found it?" He calls for a cap-and-trade policy on carbon emissions and encouraging environmentally friendly alternatives to foreign fuel.
  • Huckabee does challenge his listeners, warning of the long fight looming against Islamic fundamentalism. But he does it without the bellicosity that marks the pronouncements of rivals such as Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. His from-the-heart delivery, honed by years in Arkansas pulpits, has none of the ultra-suede smoothness of Mitt Romney.
  • His message, and the anecdotes he uses to draw it, may sound hokey to cynics. But it clearly connects with people as they sit in small meeting rooms in small Iowa towns, nodding knowingly at Huckabee's tales of poverty, striving and faith.
  • Illustrating a point about freedom and patriotism, Huckabee told the story of a Little Rock teacher who removed all the desks from her room and told students that they would have to earn them. While the students stood flummoxed, 27 veterans strode into the room carrying the school desks, and the teacher told the students: "That's OK. They already earned them for you."
  • The crowd responded with a couple of shouts of "Yeah!" and applause.