Here's a Chuck Norris fact you may not know. If Chuck Norris endorses you and appears in one of your campaign's TV ads, you take the lead in an Iowa poll and your Web server crashes. That's what happened to Mike Huckabee, the shrewder-than-you-realize former Arkansas governor (sound familiar?) who has become a major player in the tight Republican presidential race. The ad opens with Huckabee deadpanning: "My plan to secure the border? Two words: Chuck Norris." The camera moves back to reveal the Man Himself, who praises Huckabee as a solid, gun-loving, IRS-loathing conservative. Huckabee adds a twist at the end. "I approved this message ... So did Chuck." The ad, which ran in Iowa on cable for a week, has generated an astonishing 1.5 million YouTube views and clogged the campaign's Web site. Huckabee was rising in Iowa even before the ad, but he took the lead with Chuck as Huckster.
Celebrity endorsements, of course, are as old as presidential politics. George Washington—the Chuck Norris of his day—did not cut a TV spot for John Adams, but everyone knew which candidate the father of our country favored in the 1796 election. In 2008, the synergy of the Internet and pop culture has taken the practice to a whole new level. Word that Oprah would endorse—and campaign for—Barack Obama sent Hillary Clinton's campaign into the red-alert rollout of Barbra Streisand and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and an amped-up stump schedule for her husband, Bill.
Now that the Gipper is gone and Charlton Heston is in his 80s, Norris has emerged as a dream celebrity "get" on the Republican side: a half-Cherokee Oklahoman and born-again Christian conservative with a ranch in Texas, an eighth-degree black belt in karate, a syndicated column and a multigenerational movie, TV and Internet cult following. When Norris called in October to say that he wanted to endorse Huckabee, the former governor's campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, knew that he had been handed a political triple play. Norris appeals to older men who remember "The Delta Force," to evangelicals who admire his efforts to support Bible study in public schools, and perhaps most important, to kids, who have come to adore him ever since Conan O'Brien began spoofing him on his late-night show in 2004. Teenage boys—including the son of Robert Wickers, Huckabee's media adviser—check the Web site chucknorrisfacts.com daily for mock testimonies to their hero's prowess. Huckabee even uses some in the ad, including this: "When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the Earth down." "We didn't seek his endorsement," Huckabee told NEWSWEEK, "but we're sure lucky to have it."
Norris and his wife, Gena, are now part of the Huckabee inner circle. They were in the candidate's holding room for last week's CNN/YouTube debate. The two men shook hands and slapped backs after the event. "Mike's the right guy at the right time," said Norris, in the manner of Walker, Texas Ranger. Trying to consolidate his support among evangelicals, Huckabee has picked up the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., and is hoping to win over Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.
In the meantime, there is Norris. Wicker says he has more film in the can for more ads, which will also air soon in New Hampshire and South Carolina. "Chuck Norris doesn't endorse," Huckabee says in one of the forthcoming spots. "He tells America the way it's gonna be." That doesn't sound very democratic, but as the Web site says, this isn't a democracy. It's a Chucktatorship.