01/17/2008 11:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

No Chuck, No Luck For Huck

Golly gee, it was fun having Mike Huckabee in the race, wasn't it? 

I mean, the Republicans are just so dull this year.  Mitt Romney is about as interesting a stack of white paper (unlined).  John McCain has less fizz than a glass of stale beer (ptew).  Fred Thompson the candidate is less interesting even than Fred Thompson the actor (zzzz).  Even Giuliani is not really fun after the initial shock wears off (9/11).  But Huckabee?  He had charisma. He had Mark Twain style common sense.  And he had--Chuck Norris.

Huckabee still has Chuck Norris on the trail with him, but lately Chuck has been less visible in the national media.  And that's too bad.  Without Chuck in every TV clip, Huck's chances seem to diminish.   

Many pundits are saying that Mike Huckabee threw away his chances to be the Republican nominee by bringing in too much religion.  That may be true.  In a recent campaign event in Warren, Michigan, Huckabee promised to change the Constitution so that it speaks explicitly about upholding "God's standards" rather than lining up to some "contemporary view."  Here is the full quote:

"I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view."

- Mike Huckabee, Jan 15, 2008

That statement is a problem for Huck.  No doubt.  Most Americans do not want the Constitution to be change into a religious pledge.  But the real hiccup in the Warren stop was not just the statement about the Constitution, but the absence of Chuck.   

Two weeks ago, Mike Huckabee soared to the top of the charts because he framed the Republican side of the campaign with humor and common sense. Chuck Norris on the stump with him was a critical part of that story.  He was thinking outside the box and once Americans got a glimpse of it, they loved him. 

While Giuliani, McCain, and Romney were competing to win the 'most violent foreign policy' award, Huckabee was charming crowds with one-liners and easy to swallow populist morality.

Huckabee was winning because he was thinking beyond the stale, old, gray, old, dull, and old Republican play book (old). Instead of scaring voters, Huckabee was making them laugh. Instead of amassing tens of millions of dollars, Huckabee had amassed tens of millions of evangelical voters phone numbers.  Instead of TV spots maligning the Democrats, Huckabee made TV spots with Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris!  Who would have guessed that the most interesting TV ads of the whole campaign (so far) featured barrel-chested, infomercial maniac, Texas ninja Chuck Norris?  Not me, that's for sure.

Huckabee's 'Chuck Norris' ads projected three straight forward ideas about his early campaign.  First, he had no money.  Second, he had one heckuva sense of humor. Third, he had no money.

But the ads did something else, too, that few national level politicians have the chutzpah to try in today's poll-driven  election industry.  The Chuck Norris ads made fun of the culture of TV campaigns.  And it worked.  In an era when so many people are cynical about the political system, Huckabee seized the momentum and ran with it.

Fast forward to Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and now South Carolina.

Chuck Norris is still on the trail with Huckabee in South Carolina, but he is no longer as visible in the media as he was in those first few days after Iowa.  Instead, Huckabee's campaign stops began to look more and more like the kind of religious fringe material that the old-guard GOP claims he is.  Huck sans chuck was no longer framing the TV message effectively.  His opponents began framing him. 

Once that happened, his image as a voice of common-sense and humor went out the window.  The TV pundits stopped seeing what Huck wanted them to see and just started looking for the moment when Huck talked about religion.

Who can blame the media and his opponents, really?  Huckabee does have a strong, and pretty disturbing, desire to talk about religion.  Some of his strongest supporters connect to him through their Christian identity.  But those Christian voters were only one part of why Huck succeeded.  His luck with the general GOP electorate was tied up with his charisma and his humor.  Chuck Norris factor was a huge part of that initial momentum.  Chuck turned Huck into great political theater. 

The Huckabee campaign schedule in South Carolina shows quite a few stops with Huck and Chuck, but it may be too late.  It could well be that the time to really keep Chuck on the stump was in the crucial test states of New Hampshire and Michigan--the time to keep pushing the envelope when all the pundits were predicting that Huckabee did not have a chance.

Or, perhaps, the Republican Party was never really going to break the mold this year and nominate a charismatic, common sense populist from Arkansas.  Huckabee could have been a fund diversion prior to the real match up between Romney and McCain.  The outcome is uncertain, but one thing is clear: Without Chuck on the stage with him, Huckabee's luck runs out fast.

(cross posted from Frameshop)