It is not easy to say just who the Republican front-runner is right now.
The candidate leading in the early states, Mitt Romney, is not doing well in national polls.
And the candidate doing well in national polls, Rudy Giuliani, is not doing well in the early states.
One candidate is surging, however, both in the national polls and in Iowa, where the first votes in the nation will be cast on Jan. 3.
That candidate is Mike Huckabee, and because he is doing so well he has left that pleasant zone called “attention” and has entered that less pleasant one called “scrutiny.”
It began in August, when Huckabee did surprisingly well in a straw poll at Ames, Iowa.
Straw polls are a test of organization, i.e., how much you can spend to bribe people to show up, and Huckabee, who spent only about $150,000, came in second to Mitt Romney, who had spent more than $2 million in the state.
“I can’t buy you,” Huckabee told the audience in Ames. “I don’t have the money. I can’t even rent you.”
What Huckabee has instead of money, his critics feel, is the goodwill of the media who like his humor — intentional humor is rare among presidential candidates — and his persona of being “the conservative who is not mad at anybody.”
Just as Fred Thompson has the adjective “laconic” hung around his neck in press accounts, Huckabee often has the word “affable” attached to his name.
And because of good press or in spite of it, Huckabee has been on a real roll.
Last week, a Reuters/Zogby poll showed that Huckabee had nearly tripled his support in just one month to move past Mitt Romney into third place nationally behind Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson.
Perhaps even better for Huckabee, last week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll showed him tripling his support in Iowa to move into second place just 4 percentage points behind Romney.
“The surge for Huckabee is remarkable in size and intensity alike,” said Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC. “He’s attracted not just support, but enthusiastic support from core Republican groups including conservatives, evangelicals and strong abortion opponents.”
There are also people who don’t like Huckabee, including wealthy Republicans who fear he won’t make them wealthier.
Huckabee opposes what he calls the “sheer, unadulterated greed” of some wealthy business executives and says, “I won’t be the featured speaker for the folks on Wall Street when I win. I am the candidate of Main Street.”
Back when Huckabee was considered a joke or, at best, a possible vice presidential candidate (which can be the same thing as a joke), he could easily be ignored by his opponents.
But a surging Huckabee is a threat. So his critics are now attacking him for an alleged lack of fiscal responsibility — they say he was a big taxer and a big spender while governor of Arkansas — and for not being tough enough on immigration.
Huckabee, while retaining his “affable” credentials, does hit back every now and then.
A Baptist minister, he says he doesn’t speak “to” but comes “from” the evangelical community and sneers at those candidates who became “pro-life when they start running for president.”
“I’m not just saying something that a focus group gave me or a room full of consultants handed me in the form of a script and said, ‘Hey, if you want to be president, go out and say this stuff,’ ” he told me.
In the end, Huckabee says, voters will be able to discern which candidates are real and which are creations.
“I will resonate with people who are looking for authenticity,” he says.
Whoever the front-runner is right now, it is not Mike Huckabee, but he says not being ahead of the pack is a good place to be. He knows all about timing.
A marathon runner, he once told me about those who break from the pack too early and hit the wall before reaching the finish line.
“You can go out too quick, too early,” he said. “Those are the ones I pass.”