Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Huckabee: Running Down a Dream

Durham, NH -

Long distance running is often referred to as the most solitary of athletic pursuits. In order to become a marathoner, for instance, one must habitually log runs of fifteen or more miles, and without the comfort and camaraderie of a team within easy reach, those long runs can be awfully lonely. Here in New Hampshire, they can be awfully cold, too.

But when you run with a Presidential candidate sitting at more than ten percent in the polls, the loneliness is cured before it even starts. About twenty-five runners and another dozen spectators braved the 30-degree temperature early last Saturday morning to come out to the University of New Hampshire for a 5k fun run with Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee, arguably America’s most famous marathon runner who runs ten minute pace, was in good spirits on the sunny weekend morning. The run started and finished at the TKE fraternity house just off of Main Street in Durham, and Governor Huckabee showed his TKE pride, himself a brother at Ouachita Baptist back in the early 70s, by wearing a red hat with the same three Greek letters as the ten UNH TKEs who were out for the run. He was also decked out in running pants and a windbreaker from the New York City marathon he ran in 2006, and an Under Armour mock turtleneck for warmth.

The Governor joked with the participants as they waited around for the 8:00AM gun, asking questions about college and teasing his staff for wearing suits and pea coats when there was a race to be run. He also diligently and repeatedly asked who was leading the way, and if they knew the course for sure. I guess when you have a full day of events ahead of you, and a taping of Face the Nation, getting lost on a fun run with a bunch of college kids is not an option.

Sure enough, one of Huckabee’s local organizers knew the course. And time, the eternal enemy of the true 5k runner, brought about the call of the 8AM start. We all headed into the center of the road, where an elderly Huckabee supporter started us off with a clap of her hands.

Like and old pro, the Governor instantly started his watch with the gun, and the pack darted off into the empty early morning streets of Durham.

The runners were all pretty clearly feeling their nerves running with Mike Huckabee. Before the race, worries were flying left and right about hoping to finish the 3.1 mile course without having to walk, and now that we were all on the road, the timid students and curious voters kept their distance from Huckabee, leaving him to run mostly next to his staffers and the two college journalists covering the event with their handheld digital cameras.

They asked him how he felt about the campaign, and tried to prod him into comparing his campaign to a running race. Huckabee gladly obliged, telling how he preferred to run marathons to 5Ks because of the strategy and iron will it takes to complete the 26.2 mile course. He was particularly proud as he recounted anecdotes about passing cocky youngsters in New York who had failed to properly train, and by mile 6 were keeled over and sucking wind.

“Mile 6,” he said with disbelief, “they had twenty miles to go and already they were already done!”

I presume he wasn’t referring metaphorically to Tommy Thompson.

But speaking of rivals, he was invariably asked how his competitors would do in a 5k fun run with the Governor. Huckabee took this question and ran with it, so to speak.

“I challenge every candidate to a 5k race. I guarantee you none of them will show up.”

The tedious middle miles of the race were broken up nicely by surprise appearances from Huckabee’s staff. They were following the race in a car, and would drive ahead every half mile or so to jump out and cheer the runners on as they jogged toward the finish. Huckabee never missed a chance to tease them about joining in the race. Needless to say, none of the suits succumbed to the peer pressure.

About halfway through the run Huckabee started talking about his plans to run the Boston marathon. He has already registered for the race, and at this point all that he needs is for the training to follow the goal. We chatted a little bit about the Boston course, and he told us how much more difficult the Little Rock course was than the famed Marine Corps route. When he asked a supporter and me just how tough Boston’s “heartbreak hill” was, I suddenly wondered how on earth he thought he could simultaneously run for President and put in the mileage necessary to successfully complete a marathon.

After all I’m only covering the race, a far cry from running in it, and finding the time to put in more than a meager twenty-five miles a week is a constant challenge.

“Governor,” I asked with an incredulous smirk, “do you realistically think that you can train for Boston during the campaign?”

The look of sheer disbelief on my face must have struck a chord. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “That’s the plan. We’ll see how it goes.”

I should have expected nothing less from the man from Hope who has moved from a nobody to a threat in this race, and who, until very recently, could neither catch a break from the media nor raise a buck from the voters.

Later, at the two and a half mile mark, Huckabee was asked how he thought his Presidential rivals would be doing at this point in the race.

“They would be about a mile and a half back.”

“Probably giving a stump speech,” one of the runners tried to joke.

“No,” Huckabee interjected with his classic acid wit, “they’d be bent over a stump and puking.”

That last line came at the beginning of an extended hill and, even though it was the course’s only hill, still brought out the gripes in force for the runners. Even Huckabee started dropping faux threats to his staffers for planning it into the run. Luckily, as soon as we got to the top, we took a quick left and a quick right and then we were back at the frat house and the finish line.

The campaign staff, the curious voters, and the out of shape supporters all cheered as we came across the finish line. Huckabee, of course, finished first. He immediately made fun of his staff once again for not running with him.

With the race completed and the sweat beginning to evaporate, Huckabee headed to the refreshment table for a bottle of water and a banana. Earlier he had spoken some runner mumbo-jumbo about glycogen and hydration, and here he was showing that he really believed in it.

He saw a family next to the table and started chatting with them. The true test of good people, he explained to the mother and her young daughter, “is how babies and dogs react to them. Dogs and babies like good people. That is how you test the candidates. I promise that if you bring the other candidates around the dogs will bite and the babies will cry.”

Speaking of dogs, after his brief post-run chat with the average folks, Huckabee was compelled to do a brief press availability with the members of the MSM who showed up during the run to catch some soundbytes from the sweaty Governor. He reiterated, this time to a new crowd, his preference for the willpower and diligence of the marathon to the talent and preciousness of a 5K, and even brought up his sympathy for America’s sick in contrast to his own former obesity and current ability to run marathons.

But then, as the MSM started to press and press for negativity through of subjects like Bernie Kerik, Huckabee began to sour. After the second or third gotcha question his tone became firm, and finally he took a big bite out of the rest of his banana, glared at the cameras and said, “are there any more questions or do you just want to watch me eat my banana? It’s good footage.”

Huckabee’s communication director then stepped in and corralled the governor over toward the lawn for a photo with his younger TKE brothers.

As evidenced by his chatty pedestrian shuffle throughout the earlier five kilometers, his ease in standing among babies and dogs, and his instinct to make fun of his inactive staff members, Mike Huckabee is more “one of us” than he is “one of them”. This was clearer still when he gleefully picked a fraternity photo op over the cameras of CNN.

Yet the question remains, as it did while we pounded the pavement and discussed Boston marathons vs. active Presidential campaigns, can a regular Lava Soap Joe like Mike Huckabee beat the odds and win the Presidency? By doing things in his own country way, Huckabee certainly believes the answer is yes.

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