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Huckabee gets 10 late-night minutes before the big day

January 2, 2008 |  8:57 pm

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee wanted to reach several thousand Iowans for a last-minute appeal for support in Thursday's Republican caucuses there. So naturally, this afternoon he flew west a couple thousand miles to California and drove over to the NBC Burbank Studios to talk to Jay Leno for the first edition of "The Tonight Show" since the writers strike started.

The show has become a required stop for politicians trying to appear normal to Americans falling asleep at home on weeknights. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fred Thompson announced their candidacies there and John McCain reannounced.

It's a pretty clever bit of political scheduling for Huckabee actually. It's a nonthreatening setting; Leno is no Tim Russert, which is why his late-night show is so successful. It allowed the former radio host-turned-Baptist-preacher-turned-governor-turned-presidential-wannabe to showcase his genial personality.

It's national exposure for the Arkansan in case he does well in early-voting states. It's free media exposure, which Huckabee's underfunded campaign has relied on for months. It gives his Hucka-bloggers something to write about. And Huckabee will probably....

be seen by more Iowans later this evening than anything he could possibly do back where the corn and soybean fields are frozen and sleeping.

So regardless of your time zone, in case you want to set the TiVo and hit the sack early, here's what happens tonight in Huckabee's two "Tonight Show" segments:

Huckabee had a prepared joke about his sudden rise: "I'm just trying to keep from going back to nowhere as fast as I can. (Laughter) .... People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off. I think that's part of what's going on right now." (Applause)

He talked about dreaming of playing guitar at 11 and how his parents bought him one for $99 from the JCPenney catalog and took a year to pay it off. "Do you think you're good enough to sit in with our band later?" asked Leno. Said Huckabee: "No, but I'd like to do it anyway." So he did. (Does that ring any bells? An ex-governor? Also from Hope, Ark.? Making music [saxophone] on late-night TV? Arsenio Hall? 1992?)

Huckabee talked about being a Baptist preacher for 12 years: "You see every single social pathology that's out there.  Nothing is abstract to you. You put a name and a face on everything, and I really began to believe that so many people making decisions that affect the way we live, the way our future would be governed, didn't have a clue about how people were really struggling. It became evident to me that there were a lot of folks making decisions that didn't understand poverty, hunger or disease.  They didn't understand the challenges that people had in their families."

Then, he added: "And I finally thought it's time to get out of the stands and on the field and get my jersey dirty."

Leno asked him about losing 110 pounds. Huckabee said he faced a health crisis in 2003, when the doctor told him that without a major lifestyle change he was entering his last decade of life. So he changed his entire eating patterns. Leno asked about the ad wars with Mitt Romney who, Huckabee said, has spent $8 million or $9 million in ads attacking him while Huckabee spent maybe $400,000. It was hurting his campaign, Huckabee said, so they prepared an attack ad back.

But as he made it, he said, he felt like he should take a shower, and canceled the ad. He said he ultimately showed it to reporters only because they would have called it a bluff otherwise. When asked, Huckabee then went on at unusual length for a late-night talk show on his 23% "fair tax."

And the Republican also had something interesting to say about one Democrat. "I have a great respect for Barack Obama," Huckabee said. "I think he's a person who is trying to do in many ways what I hope I'm trying to do, and that is to say, let's quit what I call 'horizontal politics.' Everything in this country is not left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. I think the country is looking for somebody who is vertical, who is thinking, 'Let's take America up and not down,' and people will forgive you for being left or right if you go up." (Applause)

Then, Huckabee flew back to Iowa for a couple appearances Thursday before awaiting his evening caucus fate. But first came another free appearance on ABC's "Nightline" tonight.   

In the other political party, Hillary Clinton had something of the same idea. She got a few seconds of national face-time at the start of the (newly bearded) David Letterman show with a taped opening in which she said, “Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers strike. Tonight, he’s back. Oh, well, all good things come to an end.”

Which gave the CBS show a famous face to reopen for business and allowed that face to make a joke, which she doesn't do often and didn't write anyway.

Now comes the caucus part.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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