CLEMSON, S.C.--When Mike Huckabee delivered his victory speech in Iowa, the cameras zoomed in so far that they cut his wife out of the frame--but Chuck Norris was still in the picture, his brilliant chompers gleaming under the klieg lights. Chuck served as Huck's loyal sidekick at every stopin New Hampshire, from a middle school in Henniker to the christening of the "Huckaburger" in Concord. And yesterday he returned to the trail, introducing the candidate at a rally here on the campus of Clemson.
So, you know, we get it. Chuck Norris really wants Mike Huckabee to be president.
By "we" I mean "young voters," because I'm assuming that's who Huckabee hopes to win over by keeping "Walker, Texas Ranger" on call 24/7. To anyone over 40, Chuck Norris is Jean-Claude Van Damme with a beard. A less-bloated Steven Seagal. It takes an ironic, Generation Y sensibility to appreciate why Norris's Reagan-era brand of virile, irate, Commie-killing machismo is funny--particularly when it's amplified to (or past) the point of absurdity. Hence the Web phenomenon known as "Chuck Norris Facts"--"There is no chin behind Chuck Norris's beard. There is only another fist"--which have single-handedly revived Norris's fame. "You started this whole thing," he said yesterday. "I love you guys."
The question is: why should we care?
I'll admit it: the first few times I tuned in to the "Huck and Chuck Show"--that's how the campaign has branded their joint appearances--I chuckled. The YouTube ads("My plan to secure the border? Two words: Chuck. Norris.") were especially savvy. By tapping into the Internet's appetite for all things Chuck, they garnered Huckabee millions of views and priceless minutes of free TV time; the exposure likely helped fuel his rise in the polls. And Norris always provides the agile candidate with good punchlines on the stump. Yesterday, when a cry of "Love you, Chuck!" interrupted Huckabee's yarn about two naive New Yorkers who were having trouble starting a farm down South, he was quick with a quip. "Chuck Norris doesn't plow the field," he said. "He looks at it and the rows get in order." The line earned Huckabee his loudest applause of the afternoon--by far.
Which is, in a nutshell, the problem. Chuck Norris is great at attracting attention--but he's lousy at actually convincing people to vote for Huckabee.
There are two reasons for this.
First of all, Norris is a symbol, not a celebrity. Young people like to
laugh at what he represents, but when it comes to who he is and what he
has to say, they're about as interested as they'd be in Seagal or Van
Damme. At a gathering of pro-Huckabee bloggers in Des Moines on New
Years Day, Norris was swarmed, at first, by appreciative acolytes. But
during the Q&A session, he intercepted questions meant for
Huckabee, gave rambling, uninformed answers and spent ten minutes of
precious face time describing, in excruciating detail, his idea to host
a fundraising Web cast from his Texas ranch (complete with "a virtual
tour of his 2000 sq. ft workout room"!) to help Huckabee compete on
Super Tuesday. (It's now scheduled for Jan. 20.) When Norris asked the
bloggers if they could "get behind" the idea, the response was
muted--so he repeated the entire pitch again. The guy next to me rolled
his eyes. Norris is a hilarious concept. That's the draw. But few
people find that persuasive in and of itself. "We really only came out of curiosity," Clemson
junior Walt Roberts, 20, told me at yesterday's rally. "I mean, half
the people left right away."
There are some signs among young voters, in fact, that Norris's ubiquity may be hurting Huckabee instead of helping him--which brings us to the second problem. Struggling to keep his cash-strapped campaign afloat, Huck has relied on his genius for earning free media coverage. He opens rallies by playing bass with local rock bands. He holds press conferences while jogging or getting a shave. And he invites Chuck Norris everywhere he goes. The strategy worked at today's event--Jervey Athletic Center was packed with local and national reporters--and will likely continue to work.
But three rallies with Oprah is one thing; constant companionship
is another. For the students I spoke to afterward, all the gimmicks
Norris) merely reinforced an emerging perception--however false--that
the humorous Huckabee is not a "serious" candidate for president. (It's
a stereotype that his rivals are happy to emphasize, and it could prove
damaging on Super Tuesday, when broad national impressions will matter
more than in-person politicking.) "Obama sent his senior foreign policy
adviser to talk about stuff that
matters," said Jake Lappi, 22, who considers himself an independent.
"We heard a bunch of Chuck Norris facts and about the gym
at his ranch today. It doesn't really matter to me when I'm voting for
president." At a certain point, assuming that a Total Gym spokesman
will sway anyone's vote becomes sort of condescending--and
Huckabee wants to win the GOP nomination, he needs to expand his base
beyond the evangelicals who propelled him to victory in Iowa. Young
Republicans are one possibility. Thanks to Norris, they're tuning in.
But he's hardly enough to seal the deal.
Unless, of course, he starts roundhouse-kicking everything in sight. In that case, all bets are off.