When aides to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told the high school here that he wanted to play bass guitar with its band during a recent campaign stop, Mark Cripps grew uneasy.
As the longtime band teacher, Mr. Cripps knows how many rehearsals it takes for the teen musicians in this tiny west Iowa town to nail a song. Now a stranger of dubious musical talent – a GOP presidential hopeful no less – wanted to sit in on a couple of numbers with no run-through.
Cripps, a stocky man with the world-weary look of band instructors everywhere, wasn't taking any chances.
"I've got my bass player standing in the wings," he said, pacing nervously in the Woodbury Central High auditorium, as his students tuned up, awaiting the arrival of the Huckabee entourage that October morning. "I instructed the kids: No matter what happens, hang with the job."
Then Huckabee bounded on stage in boots and jeans, grabbed an electric bass, and bowled through "C Jam Blues," a song he'd never played before. His performance was more bravado than finesse. He bent back mid-song to consult with the 12th-grade bass player, who was standing behind him looking ill at ease. But there were no dropped beats, no goofed chords, and Cripps looked genuinely surprised.
"He knew how to ... I don't want to say 'fake it,' but 'survive it,' " Cripps said, as the news crews packed up. Cripps thought he might have even glimpsed politics in the governor's guitar shtick. "He was coming to show you, 'I can do this, I can take charge.'
As Huckabee tells it, his cash-strapped parents bought his first electric guitar from a J.C. Penney catalog for Christmas 1966, after "months of begging." Huckabee was 11. (What is it about Hope, Ark., that inspires would-be presidents to pick up an instrument?)
"The young man played until his fingers almost bled," Huckabee blogged last year, referring to himself in the third person. His teenage bands played sock hops, talent shows, and Saturday night "country music jamborees," and went by names like The Misfits and The Sanction.
"Perhaps you expect that he went on to become a famous and successful musician, gracing the album covers of Grammy-winning recordings," Huckabee blogged. "Not quite."
Huckabee says there is one reason his band, Capitol Offense, made up of wonky former staffers from the governor's office, has opened for the likes of Grand Funk Railroad, Percy Sledge, and Willie Nelson: "If you're the only governor in America with a rock-and-roll band, you get invited to some pretty good gigs."
Performing, he says, helped him overcome stage fright and prepared him for the fishbowl of politics. "For sure, I would have never made it to the Governor's Mansion without music."
Now he's hoping to ride rock 'n' roll to the White House. Huckabee may be known to diehard supporters as the former Southern Baptist minister who sees economic salvation in the abolition of the income tax. But his guitar-plucking has helped cast a popular image as the GOP candidate of "Main Street" – that, together with his diet book ("Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork") and his appearances on "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized Huckabee's stance on taxes. He supports the abolition of income tax and the establishment of a flat sales tax.]
Huckabee suggests that a candidate's agility in pop culture is as good a test as any of presidential mettle. "Stephen Colbert gave me the Colbert bump, and that's why I'm doing really well right now in the polls," he told the students, only half-jokingly, of his appearances on the show. "I think you learn more about people by watching how they handle things like 'The Colbert Show' than something that's very tightly scripted."
With his comb-over and dimpled grin, Huckabee is less hipster than cool older guy. He's your favorite uncle, the one with the Eric Clapton concert T-shirt and a gift for one-liners, eager to show that not long ago he was a kid, too. Were there a spectrum of Hollywood wholesome, he'd fall between Jimmy Stewart and Kevin Spacey: a place where aw-shucks meets off-kilter.
Watching Huckabee cycle between social conservative and freewheeling rock 'n' roller makes for some jarring juxtapositions. One night he was in suit and tie talking Social Security with seniors in Sioux City. The next morning he was playing bass in bluejeans with the school band here.
"There's a great way to live life," he said delivering an antidrug message after the jam session, "and that's keep your mind free and clear." But then in another zigzag, he segued into a meditation on 1970s rock when a junior, Jacob Polkinghorn, asked about illegal immigration.
"My views on illegal immigration? By the way, I like your shirt," Huckabee interrupted himself, gesturing at Jacob's T-shirt, with the rainbow-prism cover art from Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album.
Jacob grinned broadly.
"Favorite Pink Floyd song?" Huckabee quizzed him. "Mother," Jacob replied, naming a track from the 1979 album "The Wall," a rock opera linked in popular lore with the hallucinogenic drug culture.
Around the time "The Wall" was released, Huckabee explained later in a phone interview, "I was working for a Christian evangelical organization in Texas doing communications."
"I was never a druggie," he added. "I'm probably one of the few people my age that's never even tasted beer."
Those details didn't come up at the high school. Instead, he told Jacob, "When I saw your shirt, I just had to tell you ... it really excites me that guys who are students now love the music that I listened to."
Like your favorite uncle, Huckabee can at times seem to be trying too hard.
The big show was later that October night, across the state, at the Surf Ballroom, in Clear Lake. The venue is a pop landmark: The last place Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) played before their plane crashed in 1959. Posters on the doors beckoned Iowans to Huckabee's "2007–2008 Road to the White House Tour."
October had been a good month. His campaign had raised $800,000 in the first three weeks. And though still in fifth place in most national polls of GOP voters, in Iowa he'd inched into a tie for second. (Now in late November, he is a solid second – even tied for first in some polls.)
"Are you guys ready to have a little fun tonight?" Huckabee roared to a crowd of 400 as his band swept on stage. "We want to show that conservatives, Republicans, Christian believers can have as much fun as anybody else in the whole world."
Capitol Offense, which doesn't play original music, launched into a set of classic rock covers, the sort in any roadhouse jukebox: "Born to be Wild," "Mustang Sally," "Wonderful Tonight." Huckabee doesn't sing. But he bobbed to the beat, his shimmering electric bass slung from an American-flag strap.
At a table behind the dance floor with his wife and toddler daughter, Justin Herrick said he'd always liked Huckabee's opposition to abortion and gay marriage. But when he read that the candidate had a band, his reaction was, "Wow." So he and his wife drove two hours from Wartburg College, a Lutheran school they attend.
"Usually most ministers would be against the rock 'n' roll thing, but here he is playing it," said Mr. Herrick. "It shows what he's really like on the weekends."
Hanging back in the shadows and scrutinizing Huckabee's technique was Randy Hudson, a bassist in a band he described as "a gospel Hootie & the Blowfish meets Billy Joel."
"At first I thought, 'Is this a gimmick?' " said Mr. Hudson, a college student and former cable-TV installer. But after hearing Huckabee play, Hudson decided otherwise. "By not looking like a politician, you run the risk of people not seeing you as a politician. But he's betting on the fact that people are sick of politicians."
Turning to watch the former governor, Hudson smiled. "He's kind of like Bruce Springsteen running for president, except a nicer guy."