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Will Huck's Shtick Doom Him?

Spartanburg to Columbia, SC

If Huckabee loses tonight, you might be able to trace his fall here to the moment he decided to invite two young men named Matt Robins and Jared Shelton to travel with his campaign. Matt and Jared contribute acoustic Huck-themed cover songs like "Huck! I Need Somebody" and "Breakfast at Huckabee's"; they started at a Thursday rally at Clemson University. Their story goes like this: The two men, 24-year-old Salisbury, Maryland residents who like to play together in church, posted the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" Huckabee take-off on YouTube, which became a hit inside the Huckabee campaign. David Huckabee, Mike's son, called and asked if they wanted to warm up some crowds in South Carolina, so they jumped in a car and drove down.

It must have seemed like a hilarious idea when David made the call, but the crowd response to Matt and Jared at the two Huckabee events I went to yesterday -- a speech in Spartanburg and a Columbia rally in the same USC ballroom Mitt Romney used on Wednesday -- generally reflected one red-haired, giggling USC student's reaction: "What the fuck is this?" Matt and Jared are nice, legitimately talented guys, but they are utterly, thoroughly random, and their lyrics - "the White House holds a place for those who pray," they warble, to the tune of "Mrs. Robinson" - often sound less like a tribute to Huck than a SNL parody. You just do not want to do this. Barack Obama did not invite the Obama Girl on the trail with him, and she had a whole lot more views on YouTube.

But the Huckabee campaign has become a slave to its own freewheeling wit. "Why not?" is the ethos, and this works when you have nothing to lose, but at this stage in the game, the reasons why not are accumulating rapidly.

Way back in Iowa, I chatted to a conservative activist who recalled meeting Huckabee before he was "Huck," at the summer straw poll in Ames. He had gone to caucus for Romney, but he noticed wacky Huckabee "practically alone under a tent, playing the bass and handing out free watermelons. It was intriguing." But the campaign hasn't grown up since then, not logistically - which has been widely reported - and not aesthetically, either. Offering up "Huck! I Need Somebody" is a publicity stunt when Huckabee no longer needs one, the South Carolina equivalent of handing out free watermelons.

In Columbia, the USC ballroom is set up for a rock god. Colored lights hanging from a temporary catwalk flay the walls, and (another!) random warm-up band pumps out Goo Goo Dolls covers so hard I can't hear myself speak. The way the place is prepped reminds me of Michael Lewis's descriptions of Republican candidate Morry Taylor's events from the 1996 campaign:

The show begins. The lights go down and, on a giant screen at the front of the room, a picture of the White House goes up. "the largest business on earth" read the words over the picture. This is followed by an eight-minute video glorifying Morry. At the end of the video the speakers blare Morry's theme song, "Dancing in the Dark," until the man himself bursts into the room, assumes the stage and recites the lyrics. "You need a spark / To start a fire / And this gun's for hire..."

Except Huckabee is not a pro-choice, biker-loving one-percenter who refers to himself as "The Grizz." He's a front-runner trying to make himself a serious choice for February 5. The insurgent, so-much-fun-it's-almost-a-political-lampoon aesthetic of his campaign is now its own kind of posing, as strained as Lamar Alexander's flannel shirt.

I don't know whether it's this disconnect, or just that it's just hard to get students to turn out on a Friday night, but the USC ballroom is half empty. Huckabee now seems to be the kind of candidate who attracts more reporters than people, as opposed to Romney, who drew a fifth the media two nights ago but filled this same space to bursting. It's an ominous sign. The very latest Fox poll - showing McCain widening his lead - is, too, although so many people remain undecided the race can't be predicted.

In Spartanburg and Columbia, I see the bad side of the mooching strategy that looked good in Lexington County. Huck's eagerness to take whatever support he can get means that whatever he can get subsequently climbs up on stage with him, and too many of these surrogates are allowed to speak before he does. There's the pro wrestler Ric Flair; the former South Carolina governor, David Beasley; the lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer; the guy Bauer beat in his last election.  

In the midst of the colored lights and the cover bands and the parade of surrogates, the man himself appears small. Huckabee's stump speech changes more than anyone else's on the trail -- this flexibility is something I really like about him, and his spiel of the moment is a good, conversational one, but it's ill-fitted to the helter-skelter scene. It sounds like he does want to grow up out of his original offbeat self, appearances be damned. He makes fewer jokes than he used to. There are almost no appeals to God. His entire message is about the failing economy. "If you work twice as hard, the government takes more of your check than it's ever done before," he says.  

But if Huckabee delivers a stump speech, does anybody hear it? On the drive between Spartanburg and Columbia, I tuned in to a call-in "vote" being held on the local Fox radio station. Six callers chose Huckabee while I listened. They described themselves as "values voters", uttered in the same nichifying way the Ron Paul people say they are "constitutionalists." Only one pro-Huckabee caller mentioned the economy. For all the world has picked up on the recent economic focus in his stump speech, one imagines that Huckabee's appearances would be just as effective if, instead of delivering it, he just got up on stage, told that one about the naughty Baptists, and went straight to the rope line. It's hard to drive home a closing argument if you didn't really have an opening one.

In the USC ballroom, the stump speech finally ends, and Huckabee agrees to do what everyone came here to see: Play bass with the Goo Goo Dolls cover band. The energy picks up, and enormous network TV cameras and boom mikes surge forward towards the stage. But as the band begins to play "Sweet Home Alabama," Huckabee hardly moves his body as he picks the chords. He looks distant, sober, almost as if doing the thing that first charmed the country -- that caught that Iowa activist's attention at Ames -- is an exasperation.

--Eve Fairbanks