Vinton, Iowa -- Mike Huckabee, who plays bass guitar in a rock band called Capitol Offense, jokes that he wants to become president so he'll finally get to perform at the White House.
I the next breath, turning serious, he says he is running to repay a debt he owes to a country that has given him so much. Launching into the story of growing up in a working-class family, he tells an audience of 100 rural Iowans that his humble upbringing gave him a steady moral compass.
"The prophet Isaiah said it this way: 'Look to the quarry from which you were dug,'" said Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, who likes to talk in parables and sprinkle references to God, the Bible and prayer into campaign speeches.
In a CBS News poll last month, seven in 10 Americans said they hadn't heard enough about Huckabee to have an opinion. But among Republican primary voters, he's the fastest-rising candidate on the 2008 charts, according to recent surveys.
National media attention has started flowing his way, and he's begun to pull to within striking distance of some of his better-known rivals. The other candidates "have hit a ceiling, and they've started sliding back downward. And every week gets better for us," Huckabee said in a brief interview.
He's still a distinct long shot for the nomination, but in Iowa, where the 2008 race begins, he's moved into second, behind Mitt Romney, in the latest polls.
Despite his growing prominence, Huckabee's challenge remains convincing Republicans who like what he has to say that he's got a chance of winning. He also needs to translate his surge into more donations for a badly underfunded campaign. Huckabee says that's begun, but similar claims earlier this year weren't borne out.
"It takes two things to make a campaign successful, money and organization," says Steve Scheffler, a veteran religious conservative organizer in Iowa. Even if Huckabee were to win the caucuses, less than eight weeks from now, he said, "I don't know what that gets him" because he lacks resources to "go the long distance."
Last week, when TV evangelist Pat Robertson blessed Rudolph Giuliani's candidacy, it was both a shock and a reminder. Twenty years ago, Robertson finished second in the Iowa caucuses, heralding the arrival of religious conservatives as a major force in presidential politics.
Religious conservatives still wield power in Iowa, and Huckabee's recent gains are, in part, a reflection of their support - and of the continuing confusion on the Republican right, which is still searching for that new star. Fred Thompson's inability to fill that role is only the latest letdown in a season of disappointment.
Huckabee's progress is also due to his considerable talents as a campaigner and his consistently conservative views on abortion, gay marriage and gun ownership, in contrast to the shifting positions of Giuliani and Romney.
He's playing up his 10 years of executive experience as governor of Arkansas, while offering a radical remedy to voters fed up with the current tax system: Get rid of the federal income tax and replace it with a national sales tax.
His approach to health care reform emphasizes prevention and better nutrition to reduce the crushing cost of chronic diseases, which account for the vast proportion of medical spending.
"We're out there treating snakebites when we ought to be killing some snakes," says Huckabee, who shed more than 100 pounds a few years ago after he was diagnosed with diabetes.
The 52-year-old native of tiny Hope, Ark. (Bill Clinton's birthplace) also might be the funniest man to run for president in decades.
He drew guffaws from his audience in this farming town of 5,000 when he recalled how his father, a firefighter who rebuilt car generators in his spare time, stocked the house with Lava soap, which contains pumice.
"I was in college before I found out it's not supposed to hurt when you take a shower," Huckabee said.
He uses humor and an easy-going manner to woo voters who say they want an end to slash-and-burn politics in Washington. But he also has an answer for those who doubt his viability and say they're looking, above all, for a Republican who can beat Hillary Clinton.
"Nobody knows her better than me," he says, boasting that he defeated "the Clinton political machine" four times in Arkansas governor's races.
Despite his social conservatism, he's been criticized as suspiciously moderate on other issues. On global warming, he's one of the few Republican candidates to back a trading system that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other producers, and the conservative Club for Growth has attacked him for months over what it calls his "mixed, at best" fiscal record as governor.
Huckabee's breakout moment in the 2008 campaign came here in Iowa, in an August straw vote, when he bested a number of better-financed competitors. The event eventually led Sen. Sam Brownback, a key rival for the support of religious conservatives, to quit the presidential race. Many of his Iowa supporters have switched to Huckabee, though Brownback's endorsement of Sen. John McCain last week might lead some to reconsider, according to politicians here.
Huckabee has few paid staff members in the state and is the only Republican contender who hasn't aired campaign commercials, but he's already looking beyond the caucuses, which typically winnow a large field of candidates.
Quoting the maxim that only three contenders get tickets out of Iowa and "if you don't have one of those, you go home," Huckabee said he's "trying to make sure we've got a ticket out of here, and I think we will."
An Iowa long shot
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is still a distinct long shot for the Republican presidential nomination. But in Iowa, where the 2008 race begins, he's moved into second place, behind Mitt Romney, in the latest polls.