Huckabee Buys The Political Farm? His Seemingly-Nixonian Press Conference

Just when you thought American politics can’t get more sleazy, ethically-smelly or…Rovian….on the final day of the year former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee holds a press conference that could go down in history as lowering the bar so low that it touches the floor.

The scene: a press conference where Huckabee was supposed to unveil a new negative ad against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who has gone on negative on Huckabee big-time on the air — beating back Huckabee’s rising poll numbers and putting himself back in first place.

What happened: Huckabee insisted that attack politics had now gone too far in Iowa, that he had changed his mind and would not run the ad.

So he ran it for the reporters there anyway.

Even Richard Nixon, Lee Atwater and Karl Rove were more…ahem…subtle than this:

The New York Times:

Mike Huckabee is holding a press conference right now in which he was supposed to unveil a new negative ad against arch rival Mitt Romney.

But Mr. Huckabee came to the press conference and announced he’d had a change of heart and would not be broadcasting the ad after all.

But wait! It gets better.

He then broadcast it for a room crammed with reporters, photographers and television cameras.

The assembled media found the display hilarious and at several points laughed out loud.

Telling you what’s in the ad, of course, plays into Mr. Huckabee’s strategy of getting his message out — Mr. Romney is bad — while being able to say his hands are clean.

He spoke at a dais in front of a huge banner that said, “Enough is Enough.” Placed around the room were poster boards criticizing Mr. Romney for various things.

It’s not good when a candidate does something in a way that he is all-but-openly-called a hypocrite — some 24 hours after he accused the person he is denouncing as being “dishonest.”

In fairness to Huckabee, someone in the media might have pressed him to see the ad but, just as unused photos are not given to the public by newspapers, unused political ads aren’t usually shown to the press either.

CBS News Director of Political Coverage Steve Chaggaris:

What was most odd, however, was not the fact that Huckabee announced his change of heart to pull the ads. It was his announcement that he was going to show one of the ads to the press anyway, to “prove” that they had made one and pulled it.

Quite an interesting idea – produce an attack ad, tell the public you’ve decided last-minute you don’t want to go negative, regardless of the consequences, but then show the public the ad anyway, getting your attacks out for all to digest.

After several attempts by his audio-visual assistant to get the ad to play correctly, it finally premiered, to his exclusive audience: campaign reporters.

“If a man is dishonest to obtain a job, he’ll be dishonest on the job. Iowans deserve better,” the pseudo-invisible ad says.

Of course, it remains to be seen how this all plays out just 3 days before the Iowa caucuses. Even Huckabee acknowledged this is a serious roll of the dice.

“I’m taking a risk here,” he said. If this tactic doesn’t work out for him, he added, “then I’ll probably be the last guy to ever do this.”

Yes, that’s one safe bet you can make in Las Vegas tonight…

The Huffington Post Marc Cooper, who is reporting from Iowa describes the reaction of grizzled reporters who thought that they’ve seen everything involving craven politics being couched
as principle. But, if you live long enough, you DO see new things:

Huckabee’s unorthodox media event comes as a barrage of new polls has battered his lead in Iowa and put his campaign at risk of crash-and-burn. Some of those surveys now show Romney regaining a lead he had maintained over most of the year until Huckabee began to surge ahead in recent weeks.

“Conventional political wisdom is that you must counter-punch,” the former Arkansas governor said. “When you get hit you should hit back. And every bit of advice I have been given says that is exactly what we should do.” Huckabee explained that he, indeed, prepared and produced a TV spot attacking Romney, sent it to local TV stations but had just given the directive to pull it from airing. “This morning I ordered them to hold the ads,” Huckabee said. “From now we will run only ads that say why I should be president not why Mitt Romney shouldn’t be president.”

If he had quit THERE he might have actually (a) gotten some good press, (b) found that some pundits (and perhaps even bloggers) would have said he was indeed representing a new brand of politics, (c) stemmed some of his political bleeding and perhaps with the good press gotten some of his numbers up.

In reality, a fact check of Romney’s ads find that they misrepresent the facts.

But he then waded deep into the septic tank, while arguing he was instead meditating and painfully struggling with his conscience. Cooper:

Then, amid loud gasps and laughter from the more than 150 reporters on hand, Huckabee announced he would show the assembled press the same ad. As dozens of TV cameras whirred, and after two false starts, the 30-second spot assaulting Romney’s record was shown in full. The tag line of the spot ended with the narrator saying of Romney: “If a man’s dishonest trying to get the job, he’ll be dishonest on the job”

The room then exploded into a cacophony of questioning from the press memorializing this event as a moment that might be remembered as campaign meltdown for Huckabee.

Note that Romney’s campaign is ALSO calling it a meltdown. Cooper can’t be confused with a Romney supporter.

It seems as if Huckabee has now forged “consensus” on the right and left. Cooper again:

When asked if it was cynical to show an ad to dozens of TV cameras while saying the campaign had banned it from the air, Huckabee pleaded innocent of ill-motive. “If people want to be cynical about it, they’ll be cynical about it,” Huckabee said. He claimed that earlier this morning he had simply reached a “tipping point” and decided to make a sharp turn in his campaign away from negativity.

When pressed as to why the downtown hotel ballroom he was speaking in was festooned with charts attacking Romney’s record, Huckabee said his staff only learned of his decision “a few minutes ago when I walked into this room” and, therefore, didn’t have time to take down the negative material.

It won’t wash.

Intentionally or otherwise, Huckabee is now destined to become something of a figure of derision — saved by the bell (slightly) because the writers for most late-night comedians are on strike.

The New Republic calls the episode “A Hucked Up Situation”:

The bigfoot reporters in Des Moines are all saying that Mike Huckabee dealt his candidacy a fatal blow today. I think that’s possible, but it’s a self-reinforcing prophesy. Regular Iowans probably won’t care much that he had a flaky press conference. But he’s given the press it’s very favorite thing–a dramatic process story–and now it’s going to dominate the airwaves and papers for a day. Which is why the normally chipper Huck seems genuinely rattled.”

But it’s probably a bit more profound than that.

In a race when there are see-saw polls, and one in which he had a particularly bad week with the press, Huckabee has given voters and the press no new reason or “hook” to change the evolving conventional wisdom that perhaps he is a bit out of his depth.

KEY QUESTION: Legendary political consultant Ed Rollins is now on board with Huckabee. Did Rollins (a) have anything to do with it? (b) come up with the idea?

If this is successful, and Iowa voters say that what they learned from reports about the unaired ad changes their minds and they vote for Huckabee, perhaps Rollins knows something the rest of us don’t know.

Some have not ruled out this working. The Politico:

Mike Huckabee’s move to not run ads hitting back at Mitt Romney is a risky move that could rejuvenate his fading campaign — or ensure his defeat on Thursday.

But what the snickering big feet here say tonight or write about tomorrow is not as important as how it will be described by the local journalists who were here.

How do the local TV affiliates here describe the move? What will the AP story that dozens of papers here pick up tomorrow read like? And what sort of presentation and play will The Des Moines Register give to what can only be described as a singular moment in an already topsy-turvy campaign?

More than being a preacher and pol, Huck is a showman first. And today he was in his element on center stage. He’s risen to this point almost entirely by virtue of his unparalleled communications skills. Those were put to the test today under a withering line of questions.

If it works, the bar has been lowered again.

So far that it’s underground.