“Well, I was with the old Reagan. I can promise you that this man comes as close as I’ve ever seen.”
Mike Huckabee has seized the mantle of Ronald Reagan at the end of a week in which he pulled ahead of his Republican rivals in the key opening races for the White House nomination.
The former Baptist preacher and governor of Arkansas, who has taken a lead in four out of the five important early nominating states, has hired the man who guided Mr Reagan to the greatest landslide in American political history as his campaign chairman.
Ed Rollins, who was national campaign manager in 1984 when President Reagan won his second term with 49 of the 50 states, hailed Mr Huckabee as the candidate he has been waiting for since “the Great Communicator” left the political stage two decades ago.
He said: “Governor Huckabee has probably inspired me as much as Ronald Reagan. He had an ability to connect with people and he was a great communicator. I’ve looked for a long time for another candidate to do that.
“People are always asking: ‘Who’s the next Ronald Reagan?’ Well, I was with the old Reagan. I can promise you that this man comes as close as I’ve ever seen.”
The endorsement as the heir to Reagan – a mantle sought by all the Republican candidates – caps a remarkable month for Mr Huckabee.
He has leapt from fifth in the polls to first place in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the first three states to select their presidential candidates next month.
A new poll on Friday also put Mr Huckabee ahead in Florida, previously the cornerstone of Rudy Giuliani’s White House ambitions, and in Michigan, the birthplace of Mitt Romney, his other main rival.
He is in a statistical tie with Mr Giuliani in national polls.
Campaign aides admit that the development echoes an episode of the American drama The West Wing, which showed the early days of a successful presidential campaign.
A tiny staff gathered in a run-down office with a charismatic candidate, the governor of a small state who is given to quoting scripture but is given no hope of catching up with his better-known rivals.
That is how Mr Huckabee appeared in late September, when he told The Sunday Telegraph in his first British newspaper interview: “We’re going to catch them and pass them.”
Debra Vanderbeek, Mr Huckabee’s New Hampshire campaign manager, said: “All of us who have been involved in the campaign from the beginning have always believed that we were going to get there.”
Just 10 weeks later, Mr Huckabee’s campaign resembles a media carnival, with eight camera crews and more than 30 reporters in tow, along with the action film star Chuck Norris, his biggest celebrity endorsement.
His wife, Janet, told The Sunday Telegraph: “I’m very proud of what he has done. It’s based on volunteers, discipline and focus. When he told me he was going to run, I knew it was in him to win it.”
Mr Huckabee’s paid staff in New Hampshire, where he was campaigning on Friday, is only six and in Iowa just 14. He has been outspent 17 to one by Mr Romney.
But his support is rooted in the Christian conservative movement. He has endorsements from 60 pastors, the head of a Christian home schooling movement in Iowa and the author Tim LaHaye, whose apocalyptic Left Behind novels have sold 65 million copies among evangelicals.
These have given him a grassroots network of supporters who are much more likely to turn out in Iowa’s nominating caucuses, to be held there on January 3 – worth more than the television advertising campaigns of his better-funded opponents.
Mr Huckabee’s strength in Florida, where independent voters can hold the key to victory, suggests that his appeal goes wider.
On a visit to a company in Boscawen, New Hampshire, that makes parts for the Fender guitars that Mr Huckabee himself plays in his band, Capitol Offence, he rehearsed a populist message, stressing his humble origins and affinity with blue-collar workers.
Explaining his rise, Mr Huckabee said: “I’m thrilled about where our campaign is getting its support. It’s from ordinary Americans who want to believe that their country still belongs to them.”
Mr Huckabee’s rise and clashes with Mitt Romney, a Mormon, have put religion on the agenda as never before, and opened him to close scrutiny.
He has come under fire for previous, ill-informed statements about Aids and has been attacked for his views on immigration and tax.
He has also endured recent stories about gifts he received and possibly questionable payments he accepted from tobacco companies as governor of Arkansas, though none has yet dented his appeal.
Yet many still expect that what commentators have called the “Huckaboom” will turn to “Huckabust”.
Democrat leaders are said to believe he would be an “easy kill” in the general election.
The Conservative writer Rich Lowry, of the National Review magazine, which is backing Mitt Romney, said picking him would be “suicide” for Republicans because he “is manifestly unprepared to be president”.
The man himself is unmoved. “I’ve been called just about everything and blamed for things like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby,” he said.
He told The Sunday Telegraph: “I beat the Clinton political machine four times in Arkansas. No other Republican can say that. I remember that Ronald Reagan was the guy the establishment conservatives said couldn’t win.”
Norris, the star of the Delta Force movies, said he had worked out with Mr Huckabee to prepare him for the gruelling campaign ahead. “I took him to my gym,” he said. “He’s a man of 52 and I wanted to see what he was like. He’s fit and I know he can take a punch.”
Mr Rollins’s appointment helps to answer critics who claimed Mr Huckabee’s surge in the polls would be undone by a lack of money and political organisation.
The Republican strategist Jim Nuzzo, who followed Mr Huckabee on Friday, said: “Ed Rollins has got the deepest Rolodex [contacts file] in the business. Nobody knows where the Republican bodies are buried better than Ed Rollins. Heck, he buried some of them himself.”