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Jubilant Huckabee Thanks Iowa Supporters

Huckabee, with his wife Janet and Chuck Norris, at his post-caucus address in Des Moines. (Reuters)

By Perry Bacon Jr.
DES MOINES--He wasn't working from prepared remarks because, according to Bob Wickers, his longtime media adviser, "No one writes Mike Huckabee's speeches."

So an off-the-cuff Huckabee addressing a crowded hotel ballroom, with the actor Chuck Norris looking on, told his Iowa supporters: "You know I wasn't sure I would ever be able to love a state as much as I love my home state of Arkansas, but tonight, I love Iowa."

VIDEO: Huckabee's remarks after winning the Iowa caucuses. (AP)

"Tonight what we have seen is a new day in American politics," Huckabee said at the Embassy Suites here, a few blocks from the state's capitol. "And tonight it starts in Iowa, but it doesn't end goes to all the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave."

"If this were a marathon," he said behind a sign that said 'We Like Mike', "we've only run half of it, but we've run it well."

Wickers said the combined victories of Obama and Huckabee were significant, as it told voters that it was "okay" to vote for the candidates they found appealing, as opposed to those with more traditional political experience. Huckabee aides have long compared their race to Obama's, believing both candidates offered uplifting positive messages that would in the end appeal to voters.

Huckabee aides said their victory today had much to do with the strong second-place finish in the August straw poll. They said religious conservatives such as author Tim Lahaye, who encouraged local pastors to tell their congregations to turn out, helped, but they credited smaller informal networks like home-schoolers with essentially turning out their voters with very little help from a bare-bones campaign.

The candidate provided much of the juice for that turnout. Huckabee has courted national press nearly all the last week, appearing on several morning shows each day, inviting reporters to see him run and later get a haircut and appearing on "Meet the Press" and Jay Leno.

His aides took a radical view of the Iowa caucuses, believing a candidate could reach voters as easily through national media as with stopping town-by-town as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney did. His debate performances helped, as did a clever ad with Chuck Norris that was played everywhere and an appearance on Glenn Beck's show that helped him win the conservative vote.

Huckabee was also helped in turnout by two independent groups: Fairtax, which advocates a national sales tax, and a nonprofit called Redeem the Vote that sought to organize conservative Christians.

"He was doing more with less, getting tremendous national media attention through the debates," said Bob Wickers, a top strategist who helped design the Norris ad.

On the night before the caucuses, Wickers, campaign manager Chip Saltsman and the candidate's daughter's Sarah, one of his top aides, were sitting in Sarah Huckabee's office on the second floor of the campaign's Des Moines headquarters, which also happens to be the candidate's only office in the state, eating fried chicken and looking confident, believing the campaign had made the case that Romney was inconsistent and this would help them win on caucus night.

Huckabee's aides pointed to a sharp series of ads, particularly one called "Believe" that dubbed him a "Christian leader," as not only promoting Huckabee, but also making the case that Romney was not a politician of conviction. They pointed to exit poll results showing 33 percent of voters picked "candor" as a top quality in their vote, compared to 14 percent who picked experience and 8 percent who picked "best chance" of winning.

"You can't underestimate the importance of the Believe ad," Wickers said.

The campaign also pointed to what Ed Rollins dubbed "a volunteer army." A staff of almost entirely unpaid people showed up in Iowa after Christmas, and on the Wednesday before the caucus, they made 12,000 calls, 2,000 more than had been the campaign's goal.

"Our ragtag band of activists beat their group of super volunteers," said Charmaine Youst, a top adviser.

Campaign aides also said they felt a much-panned press conference in which Huckabee announced he was pulling a negative ad from the air, only after showing it to dozens of reporters, had communicated the desired effect: Huckabee didn't support negative campaigning. Most of all, they credited the candidate's ability as a speaker for overcoming organizational weakness.

"We always knew our goal was for people to hear him speaking," Youst said.

Now Huckabee looks forward to New Hampshire, where aides are less confident about their candidate's appeal. "It's all no tax, no government there," said Wickers, the top strategist. "It's not ideal." But they believe that Huckabee's message on addressing economic anxieties will help in Michigan and in South Carolina.

Already, Huckabee, who took reporters on a hunting trip and held an event at a store that sells hunting goods, is seeking to expand his base beyond the social conservatives who have powered him here in Iowa.

"He needs to expand his base and he is," said David Beasley, the former governor of South Carolina and a key supporter.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 3, 2008; 10:48 PM ET
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