West Des Moines, Iowa - Two nights before the crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee appealed to God to grant his supporters guidance as the former Arkansas governor struggled to maintain his tenuous lead.
"We cannot do it," he said referring to Thursday night's Republican caucus, "by arming ourselves and taking anyone out. We will go to the caucuses having knelt on our knees and having asked God for his wisdom."
Huckabee made his appeal Tuesday night to a brimming ballroom of supporters in the conservative suburbs of the state capital against a backdrop of country western music and accompanied on stage by actor and self-described "corporate leader" Chuck Norris.
The event drew a large crowd and galvanized various splintered shards of Iowa's once-formidable and unified Christian conservative constituencies: home schoolers, flat or "fair tax" advocates, anti-choice activists and religious fundamentalists.
An influential and authoritative poll released earlier in the day by the Des Moines Register showed Huckabee maintaining a six point edge -- 32% to 26% -- over rival Mitt Romney.
Meanwhile a debate has raged among political insiders as to whether or not Huckabee had staged an historic meltdown or a cynically brilliant political coup during a highly unusual press conference on Monday. After renouncing negative campaigning, the former Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor said he was withdrawing a planned attack ad against Romney, only to then show it in its entirety to dozens of news TV cameras and reporters from the national press corps.
"I have no regret at all about pulling the ad. I slept well last night and woke up this morning feeling even better about it. It was the right decision," Huckabee said publicly earlier in the day. His national campaign manager, veteran operative Ed Rollins, also defended the move and predicted to reporters that Huckabee would win the Iowa caucuses and would eventually pair off against Arizona John McCain for the party nomination.
Huckabee maintained his promise of staying positive by keeping a light, upbeat tone at tonight's event. But the speech was nearly free of any specific policy proposals. Also gone were many of his trademark economic populist exhortations against Wall Street.
Instead, Huckabee played directly to the staunchly conservative crowd by emphasizing traditional red meat themes. He vowed a defense build-up that would produce "a military of sorts that no one on earth would want to take us on." And in promising a policy of energy self-reliance, he said that soon after his election "we will be able to tell the Middle East 'we don't need your oil anymore than we need your sand.'"
The gathered crowd warmly received Huckabee as a political savior in a Republican field littered with troubled campaigns. The candidate's references to the Bible and to the prophet Isaiah elicited several shouts of "halleluja" from the audience.
"I like his overall Christian principles, his family orientation. He's the only candidate with real Christian ideals," said 41 year old Arizona businessman John Moore. "I haven't even thought through who I could vote for if he doesn't win the nomination."
Moore was part of a group of 21 adults and children, all home-schoolers, who traveled from Flagstaff to volunteer for Huckabee's Iowa campaign. The children, many of them grade school age, have been helping to staff Huckabee's daily phone bank operation.
The presence of actor and businessman Chuck Norris also helped draw tonight's big crowd that wildly applauded when he took the stage. Norris offered up a rambling, unfocused talk in which he enthusiastically endorsed Huckabee's proposal of a "fair tax" that would replace the progressive federal income tax with a steep sales tax. Norris said such a system would guarantee that "Arab sheiks" get taxed when they come to America "to buy their yachts and jet planes."
After the speechmaking, the event took on a party atmosphere as Huckabee picked up an electric guitar and, accompanied by former U.S. congressman and current MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough, belted out a version of "Sweet Home Alabama."
"I've been telling people to caucus for Mike Huckabee because he's very honest and that proves he is not mean," said 9 year old Ryan Echols, one of the Arizona home-schoolers who has been working the phone bank for the candidate. "That's one of the reasons they've been making all those rude commercials about him."