Lame Huck

How do you cover a candidate-who-isn’t?

Last Tuesday, the day of the pivotal Potomac Primary, the van carrying Mike Huckabee’s traveling press corps from Washington, D.C. to Dulles Airport ran out of gas. The former governor’s embeds spent part of Super Tuesday II huddled together in their crippled vehicle on the shoulder of the Dulles Toll Highway, trying to stay warm in the 20-degree cold.

The drama lasted only a few minutes, though; soon, another van was dispatched to “rescue” the handicapped Huck-a-truck. The reporters were herded onto the new vehicle and dropped off at Dulles without further incident. No problem. Their luggage, however, along with a few straggling Huckabee staffers, stayed aboard the original van, which was refueled and sent back on the road to rejoin the party at Dulles. But whoever had done the refueling had pumped in only a few gallons, not a full tank…and, after a few minutes, the van’s engine sputtered once more.

Yep: the Huck-a-truck was out of gas. Again.

One could read all this, of course, as a tragicomic analogy for a campaign that is figuratively and, now, literally exhausted—a metaphor for a candidate whose sputtering engine is fueled, at this point, only by fumes of faith. But Mike Huckabee doesn’t believe in metaphors. Mike Huckabee believes in miracles.
And however much his campaign may be stalling—in every sense of the word—before our eyes, the Other Man from Hope keeps finding a way to remind us where he came from. “I know people say that the math doesn’t work out,” Huckabee says. “Folks, I didn’t major in math. I majored in miracles, and I still believe in those, too.”

But political reporters believe in numbers. And when they’ve looked to the numbers—in this case, the all-important delegate tallies—they’ve discovered the same thing the Huckabee campaign itself seems to know: that, given his current 241 delegates to John McCain’s 821, the former governor, at this point, will need to win 123 percent of the delegates up for grabs in the remaining contests to secure the GOP’s nomination. You don’t need to have majored in math (or miracles) to know that a miracle is, at this point, the only thing that will make Mike Huckabee the GOP nominee. The Huckaboom is Huckadoomed.

Which presents an unusual conundrum for political reporters: How do you cover a candidate who is, for all practical purposes, no longer a candidate? How do you report on a battle that’s already ended? Especially when the losing side, through delusion or faith or something in between, refuses to acknowledge the inevitability—and the current reality—of its own defeat? Huckabee isn’t a Ron Paul or a Dennis Kucinich, after all, a fringe candidate whom the press has generally treated with the polite patronage bestowed on anti-inevitability. Huckabee did have a chance, at one point; he just doesn’t any longer. (Huckabee is, in this sense, more akin to Giuliani than to Paul or Kucinich; the former mayor and the former governor have both seen their presidential chances plummet before their eyes. But, while Giuliani’s fall from political grace was precipitous, Huckabee’s has been, ironically, Darwinian: his has been a slow but steady devolution.)

Journalists covering Huckabee, then, must confront, in their work, an inherent narrative tension between what is and what is surely to be: the immediate (Huckabee’s still on the trail) versus the imminent (he won’t be for long). And that tension is compounded by the fact that Huckabee isn’t just on the campaign trail, a meek, Ron Paul-style presence that nips at the heels every once in a while to remind us of its continued existence. Rather, Huckabee has been directing the trail’s course, countering the numeric impossibility of his own nomination—determined, it seems, to give his miracle its own fighting chance to materialize—with a media blitz that would be the envy of any Hollywood starlet (not to mention any Arizona senator).

Here he is, chatting with Dave Letterman on The Late Show. And playing air hockey, using a Texas-shaped puck, with Stephen Colbert. And tossing zippy one-liners to gathered media at The Christian Science Monitor’s traditional reporters’ breakfast (motto: “Better Journalism through Bacon”). And bowling—Mr. and Mrs. Huckabee against a revolving twosome of reporters—in Wisconsin. Et cetera. The guy is everywhere. His enthusiastic omnipresence, as some have suggested in their less cynical moments, could be due to the fact that Huckabee, like his fellow Man from Hope, simply relishes the ‘camp’ in campaigning, the interaction with supporters and the press, the zaniness of it all. “He clearly establishes a good rapport with some of his crowds, and gets some enthusiastic crowds,” US News and World Report’s Michael Barone noted on Fox News this weekend, a chyron reading WHY IS MIKE HUCKABEE STILL IN THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE? flashing on the screen below him. “That experience is a rush, as some former candidates will tell you. Getting the applause of an enthusiastic audience is a nice positive feedback.”

Huckabee himself explains it this way: “This is an election, not a coronation, and I owe my supporters an opportunity to have their voice heard until we have a clear winner.”

As much as you want to give Huckabee—that wise-cracking, bass-playing, marathon-running, eminently likeable former minister—the benefit of the doubt, this seems just slightly disingenuous. We have a clear winner, after all. His name is John McCain. Huckabee’s Teflon coating, whatever its more noble provenance may be, also smacks of self-interest. Huckabee may be, among other things:

• angling for McCain’s running-mate nod

• semi-auditioning for a commentator spot on Fox News or some such

• accumulating political good will for a 2012 re-run (“Democrats who lose once rarely do better when they seek the presidency again,” Shankar Vedantam wrote in a Washington Post piece today. “Republicans who come in second, on the other hand, almost invariably come back to win the nomination the next time.”)

• trying to prevent McCain from garnering the magic 1,191 delegates he needs for the nomination, thus leading to a brokered convention (“Right now, nobody has the 1,191 delegates,” Huckabee said at a press conference, “and therefore it would be a little premature to quit until the game has actually come to a conclusion.”)

• actually doing a favor to McCain (“If we have no contest at all, and the other side does have a contest, it’s hard to stay in the news,” Charlie Black, a McCain senior adviser, told Salon.)

So, given all that: what’s a journalist to do in continuing the Huckabee plot? Do you focus on the immediate, or the imminent? You could, on the one hand, eschew the former for the latter, treating Huckabee’s defeat as inevitable and thus, Ron Paul-style, ignoring him. And some have. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported, only 2 percent of the stories in the week before Super Tuesday I—even while Huckabee was still, if a long-shot, numerically viable—involved Huckabee. (Compare that to John McCain’s whopping 37 percent.) But those who didn’t ignore the candidiate often approached the Huckabee conundrum with some combination of:

polite skepticism (the Times’s Kit Seelye: “Huckabee faces what analysts say is a “mathematical impossibility” in accumulating enough delegates to win the presidential nomination, but he says he believes in miracles.”)

charitable benefit-of-the-doubt-giving (Roll Call: “While former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee continues to wage his decidedly uphill battle for the Republican presidential nomination, he ruled out the possibility this week of challenging first-term Sen. Mark Pryor (D) in November.”)

amused confusion (the LA Times: “Six days ago, John McCain effectively clinched the Republican nomination for president. Media outlets around the globe reported the news. Millions assumed the race was over. And yet, rival Mike Huckabee thinks he’s still in it.”)

amused acceptance (the Huffington Post’s Will Durst: “The Republicans are left with a candidate who believes that dinosaurs lived at the same time as men, and another who can personally refute that since he was there.”)

gentle mockery (George Will in The Washington Post: “Daniel Webster said ‘miracles do not cluster,’ but Webster did not anticipate Mike Huckabee, whose campaign manager is, evidently, God.”)

admiration (the AP: “McCain is on a steady march toward amassing the 1,191 delegates he needs, but Huckabee has proven an unexpectedly durable challenger. With a strong appeal to evangelical conservatives, Huckabee defeated McCain in two out of three states that chose delegates last weekend, and ran a far stronger race than expected before losing the Virginia primary on Tuesday.”)

The AP assessment has something when it comes to the Huck-a-run. Whatever else one may think of it, there’s something admirable in Huckabee’s Teflon tenacity; the Unshakable Underdog is a pet figure in American politics, and one whose sheer moxie even the most cynical of pundits tends to appreciate. But however skilled Huckabee may be at garnering the free press that comes from an impromptu snowball fight with his wife or a bowling game against reporters, the fickle flow of momentum has shifted—permanently, it seems—toward McCain. And increasingly common in press treatments of Huckabee—especially among the MSM, who tend to have less patience in waiting for miracles—is a grafting of the Huckabee narrative onto McCain’s. Resulting from that union has been a sense of frustration, even bitterness, that Huckabee is, increasingly, a source of embarrassment to the party’s nominee. The Washington Post offered this A1 commentary after the Potomac Primary, emphasis mine:

In Little Rock, Huckabee again refused to concede the race to his rival….Despite trailing far behind in the delegate race, Huckabee has spent the past ten days embarrassing the senator with election victories, including taking two of three contests Saturday. Before yesterday, seven states declared themselves unwilling to fall in line behind a wave of endorsements for McCain by members of the Republican establishment.

And here’s the Chicago Tribune:

They have a clear winner in McCain, but he continues to be embarrassed by his remaining challenger, Mike Huckabee, whose strong showings underscore McCain’s weakness with the religious conservative base of his party that doesn’t seem willing to accept the new reality….If Huckabee stays in the race much longer, he will only continue to spotlight McCain’s weakness, something that cannot be encouraging to Republicans on the day their nominee became most clear.

And here’s, again, the LA Times:

Day by day, Huckabee has become a growing nuisance to McCain.

These “nuisance” narratives imply, though rarely come out and ask, the overarching question of Huckabee’s continued campaign-trail presence: what “miracle,” exactly, is Huckabee waiting for? For John McCain to have an Allenesque “macaca” moment? For his momentum simply to stall? Perhaps. But you can’t help but think it’s something at once more pragmatic and more perverse. “Mike Huckabee says he doesn’t believe in poll numbers, but he does believe in miracles,” Will Durst wrote. “Apparently he expects God to smite John McCain dead.” Which has a kernel of truth to it. Like a Broadway understudy whose shot at stardom relies on adversity befalling the lead, Huckabee’s star turn, for 2008, at least, now basically depends on McCain’s bad luck. Journalists may love a good miracle—particularly when it makes a good story—but for one man’s miracle to be another’s misfortune? That’s a tale few, even the drama-loving political press, are eager to tell.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.