Huckabee the hipster

In many ways, the news coverage of GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee reminds me of the type that would be given to a city's new young, hip youth pastor. He's got all the right moves, says all the right things, draws praise from nearly everyone, including his opponents, and -- guess what? -- he strums the guitar. One more thing: he's got a great personal story of losing nearly enough weight to make up another person. The focus on the new guy is primarily on how different he is from the typical image people have of pastors. To those writing profiles of him, it's somehow shocking that a pastor could be, like, normal.

Huckabee's media coverage has all these elements, and he's a pastor nonetheless. The news profiles give off a tone of amazement as they describe what could be the new face of the religious right. Here's the Los Angeles Times on The Huckster's latest visit to the country's entertainment Mecca:

So what was Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee -- the near-asterisk in the polls, the former governor more famous for losing 110 pounds than anything he did in office, the second-best politician to come out of tiny Hope, Ark. -- doing in an office park in Irvine?

Whatever he can.

In a lawyer's conference room Wednesday, Huckabee was working to impress three dozen members of the local Lincoln Club, hitting on the issues -- during the portion that was open to reporters -- in a soothing voice that masked some rather pointed rhetoric.

Huckabee is getting some unusual coverage from many different media outlets. His humor and religion are mixing together in a not-so-unusual way, at least outside of politics in the last couple of decades, and the media's picking up on it. Is Huckabee, in his efforts to be the evangelical right's new political leader, changing the image of the group? Or is he some kind of exception to the rule in the eyes of the media?

At the end of August, The Washington Post ran a piece that focused on Huckabee's coolness as compared to the rest of the Republican candidates. But is the focus on the supposed hipness of the former Arkansas governor more a sign that the people writing about conservative evangelicals had created a stereotype that Huckabee has the political benefit of shattering?

Sarah Huckabee has known her father, Mike, as many things. When she was little, he was the man whose wallet she could dig into with any sentence that began "Daddy, I need . . . ." Later, he was the man whose ascent to the Arkansas governor's office ripped her away from her friends and familiar surroundings the summer before she entered high school. Now, as his national field director, she's known him as a Republican Party candidate for president and charismatic speaker. But, she says, she's never known him as "hip."

"We'd have to work on some of his clothing options before I'd say that," the 25-year-old Huckabee says during lunch Wednesday at a brew pub here where her father -- sporting a prep-school ensemble of a blue-striped oxford shirt and blue blazer -- eats with a local newspaper columnist.

But hip is precisely what Huckabee has become in the weeks since he placed second in the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 11. Indeed, since walking into the media filing room that night and being swarmed by the media as if he were -- these are his words -- "Britney Spears being released from prison," Huckabee has been seen as the cuddly antidote to what has been an awfully tough-talking Republican field. He's the affable, compassionate, good guy and rock-and-roll evangelical who plays guitar and wants to hang with the Rolling Stones.

The big question journalists should be asking, as they seem to bask in awe of this folksy politician from Arkansas (dêjà vu, anyone?), is whether Huckabee is really that unusual for his political base. Whether Huckabee represents a changed evangelical right or just a different side of the group is still undetermined, and journalists should not assume either conclusion is correct.

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