Welcome to the O.C., Huck

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.--Swimming pool. Tennis court. Lakefront vista. Bottle blondes. Valets in tuxedos parking Audis, Lexuses, Benzes and BMWs. Bartenders serving wine and champagne at 11:00 on a Wednesday morning. People actually wine and champagne at 11:00 on a Wednesday morning--instead of, you know, working. In the street, a woman wearing britches and designer sunglasses led a gorgeous chestnut mare by the reins. Nearby, Hispanic laborers picked crabgrass from the close-cropped lawns.

In the immortal words of Luke Ward: "Welcome to the O.C., b***h."

Or a Mike Huckabee fundraiser.  

Newport Beach is not exactly Huckabee's scene. To put it mildly. As one of the poshest communities in America, it's a poor fit, in theory, for a Southern-fried Arkansan whose mother grew up with dirt floors and whose father never finished high school. "You're pretty sophisticated out here," he noted. (Eat your heart out, Ryan Atwood.) But when Huck arrived this morning in California for tonight's debate at the Reagan Library--he was the first candidate in town--he went straight for the low-slung Newport ranch of Buck and Colleen Johns. Why? Money. A country combo called the Coldcuts may have been playing Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places," but today, at least, Huckabee was aiming a little higher up the ladder.

Good thing Huck is a consummate chameleon on the stump. I've seen him sermonize at Baptist churches, rock out on college campuses and crack wise on late-night television, but this morning he relished a new role: heir to Ronald Reagan. "Reagan's an icon nowadays, but people forget that, back then, he bucked the establishment," said Huckabee, drawing the connection between the Gipper's rise and his own. "The elitists on the East Coast didn't have use for him. But he was speaking out in a way that attracted new folks to the party."  The approach makes perfect sense. A bastion since the 1960s of movement conservatism, Orange County propelled Barry Goldwater to the 1964 GOP nomination and later fueled Reagan's 1976 and 1980 runs. Aware of the area's history, Huckabee sought to calm fears that his economic populism led to higher taxes and bigger bureaucracy in Arkansas, reassuring attendees that he's a "real conservative" who  "want[s] government to get out of the way of the free market." Even the values-voter section of his stump speech was altered for the country-club crowd. "Strong families are not just a social-issue but an economic issue," he said. "They're very expensive to the rest of the taxpayers."  

The pitch went over well enough. As dolled-up guests mingled in a tent outside his low-slung ranch home, Buck Johns announced that the fundraiser had netted more than $100,000, which should provide a small boost to Huckabee's perennially cash-strapped campaign. But even donors worried that Huckabee doesn't have the money or momentum necessary to compete with McCain and Romney in the Super Tuesday bonanza. "It's in God's hands now," shrugged John Lewis, a 33-year-old real estate broker from nearby Walnut. As always, Huckabee had a good line ready. "We're not only in play but poised to win," he said, "in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, West Virginia and Montana."

A stretch? Sure. But you get what you pay for.