Mike Huckabee returns to Iowa for the first time in 24 days today, and the time away seemed to do him some good. When news first broke that Huckabee was going to campaign outside of Iowa during the majority of November, a senior Romney aide showed me the headline with a pleased smile and a glimmer in his eye. Pundits cautioned that Huckabee was ruining his momentum in the Hawkeye State. But they were wrong: Huckabee's charm lingered.
So today he arrives in Des Moines to glowing headlines of his continued surge in the state. A glimpse back at the main themes of Huckabee's three Iowa-free weeks:
- Bump in the polls : When Huckabee left, Iowa polls had him trailing Romney by double digits. Now he holds a margin-of-error-proof lead over Romney. Romney, feeling vulnerable, has decided to hold The Mormon Speech in response.
- Aggressive endorsements : Huckabee picked up support from both Chuck Norris and Ric Flair over the past few weeks. College Republicans nationwide made pained puns about "hearting Huckabee."
- Advertisements : Huckabee compensated for his lack of face-to-face visits with two new ads, one touting his conservative and Christian credentials and one touting Chuck Norris' fist.
This isn't to say Huckabee had a stress-free vacation. His opponents have begun to attack his pro-immigration record. Ethical questions from his time as Arkansas governor have also begun to dog his campaign. But the attacks seem to have added fuel to Huckabee's rise.
Huckabee's success creates a dilemma. Does he spend the rest of December in Iowa, trying to make sure that Romney doesn't sneak back into first on caucus night? Or does he look past the state--at the risk of alienating caucus-goers--and try to make his candidacy viable in other early primaries? It's unlikely New Hampshire Republicans will flock to the polls to support a Southern Baptist, so Huckabee really needs to make a choice between Iowa and South Carolina. Given that he was still a dark horse just weeks ago, it's what you might call a high-end problem.