The long days, late nights and constant talk about politics must be getting to me. I had the craziest dream last night -- I was at this old 1930s-era ballroom in Iowa, the kind of place where, like, Duke Ellington would have played in his heyday but that now has to settle for the Tesla reunion tour. I was surrounded by conservative Christians and these weird groups of teenagers who were unusually excited about abolishing the IRS. Chuck Norris was up on stage, talking about putting Marines in headlocks and dancing with his younger, blonder wife. And for some reason, Mike Huckabee was there, playing bass on "Sweet Home Alabama" with a local band called the Boogie-Woogies while MSNBC host/former "Contract With America" revolutionary Joe Scarborough sat in on guitar.
Oh, wait, you're right. That wasn't a dream.
Last night's "Huck and Chuck" affair at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines was one of the strangest political events I've ever attended. Forget about Huckabee, who's already proven a staggering ability to exceed bizarre expectations. Yes, he did choose the stage at the Val Air to suddenly start quoting the Bible again in his public appearances ("I know where I come from. The prophet said in Isiah, 'Look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were drawn,' I know where I come from"), after a week of focusing more on populism than preaching. And yes, he dragged out his running joke about Iowans not letting their neighbors who don't support Huckabee out of their houses on Thursday past humor, and into a realm where you had to wonder if he really means it deep down ("Shovel your snow in their driveway, let the air out of their tires, disconnect their battery cables ... that's going to make the press, I'm pretty sure").
Still. Chuck Norris is the guy whose campaign I really want to be covering. For one thing, Huckabee introduced Norris, not the other way around -- turning a reasonably successful presidential campaign into a prolonged warm-up act for "Walker, Texas Ranger." But then Norris started speaking. He opened by telling a crowd of family-values voters that he and his wife, Gena, had left their 6-year-old twins home in California to come to Iowa to campaign for Huckabee, which went over about as well where I was standing as a joke about Jesus would have. He went on an extended riff about how he's a "corporate leader" who's made "millions of dollars," and although he's willing to pay taxes so the burden doesn't all fall on the middle class, he spends "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on financial planning designed to avoid income taxes anyway. That was all by way of endorsing the Fair Tax, a scheme to replace the IRS with a national sales tax that Huckabee has endorsed. "You know, if you buy a yacht, if you buy a jet, pay consumer tax on it," Norris said. "When these sheiks and the Arab princes come over here and buy millions of dollars of merchandise, taking it back to their homelands, and pay no taxes on it, let's tax them."
That went over much better than the line about the twins. So did a later plea for fairness toward Huckabee, which began as a pushback against Mitt Romney's ads but turned into a media bias complaint. It's worth just quoting in full:
"Another thing that irritates me is they're calling Mike Huckabee a Baptist minister. You know -- I don't call him 'Pastor Mike,' I call him 'Governor Mike.' The thing is, he was, but then he became the lieutenant governor and the governor of Arkansas for over 12 years. Why don't they say that? They don't call Mitt Romney 'Businessman Romney,' they call him 'Governor Romney,' so let's get fair here."
Later, Norris came back onstage before Huckabee and the band played, and told some story about doing a USO tour and accidentally choking Marines unconscious, which I didn't really understand and don't have on tape because the sound system didn't reach the part of the ballroom I was standing in very well. And he told the crowd his favorite line from the ironic Chuck Norris Facts fan site was, "They tried to put Chuck Norris on Mt. Rushmore, but they couldn't, because the granite wasn't tough enough for his beard." Next, he explained that if you donate money to Huckabee on Jan. 20 for a "virtual barbecue" Norris is sponsoring, you can get a webcast tour of his Texas ranch, complete with the 2,000-square-foot workout room. Which he has because "I have a lot of black belts coming through, so I need a lot of space to work out." At one point, he also mentioned that he works out on the Total Gym, which led me to ask Romney aides over drinks later whether they'd be filing a complaint with federal election officials declaring late-night Total Gym infomercials an in-kind contribution to Huckabee. (Not a bad idea, they decided.)
Before the night ended, the band came out and played three songs. Huckabee sounded fine on the bass, though he either didn't know the words to "Sweet Home Alabama," "Twist and Shout" or "Roll Over Beethoven," or he can't sing and play at the same time. Scarborough sang backup vocals and played rhythm guitar. The crowd was extremely into it all, though I can't say for sure whether there were 500 people there -- the number Huckabee's daughter, Sarah, predicted in the afternoon -- or 2,000 people -- the number Huckabee announced from the stage. Seemed closer to 500, though, and at least 100 were press -- for political writers stuck in Iowa, "Huck and Chuck" was clearly the social event of 2008 so far.
At any rate, it was one of the only events Huckabee has done involving actual caucus-goers in the final days of the campaign. He spent Monday jogging, holding a controversial press conference and getting a shave and a haircut before he finally held a New Year's Eve party for supporters. Tuesday, he had a couple of public forums in the morning, then met with bloggers at the Des Moines Marriott before the Chuck Norris thing. Today, he's doing two forums early -- then jetting to Los Angeles to appear on the first "Tonight Show" since the Hollywood writers' strike began. His Iowa campaign manager, Eric Woolson, told me Huckabee's been busy doing interviews with local press between events, but still, it's yet another unconventional strategy twist. It takes a certain character trait to flee Iowa to crack jokes with Jay Leno less than 24 hours before a caucus you need to win to have a shot at the White House. Chuck Norris would call it "toughness." Personally, I'm not sure what to call it, but it's certainly fun to watch.