Huckabee plans quick foray from Iowa to Leno show

FORT DODGE, Iowa Wed Jan 2, 2008 9:29am EST

Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee listens on a phone during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa, January 1, 2008. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee listens on a phone during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa, January 1, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes

FORT DODGE, Iowa (Reuters) - From snowy Iowa to the bright lights of comedian Jay Leno's studio in Burbank, California, Republican Mike Huckabee's upstart presidential campaign was taking a roundabout route on Wednesday.

A day before the Iowa caucuses that will kick off the presidential selection process for both Democrats and Republicans, the former Arkansas governor was planning a break from chilly community halls to fly briefly to the West Coast to appear on NBC's "The Tonight Show" hosted by Leno.

Huckabee was taping an interview on Leno's first new show since the Hollywood writers' strike forced it into reruns on November 5. The show was expected to attract a large national audience.

It was an unusual move in the final hours before a critical election, but Huckabee denied that it reflected overconfidence, despite polls showing him leading the Republican field.

"Absolutely not," Huckabee told ABC's 'Good Morning America.'

"I've been up since 4 this morning. I'll be campaigning to early afternoon. I fly to California. I'm back here tonight. I'll be up again at 4 in the morning. We'll still be campaigning. In the meantime more people will see me -- in Iowa -- on Jay Leno tonight," he said.

Polls show a close race between Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has pumped much effort and millions of dollars into the state. A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released on Wednesday showed Huckabee's lead over Romney sliced to two points, 28 percent to 26 percent, within the statistical margin of error.

Some analysts thought the exposure of appearing on Leno may pay big dividends.

"Leno is offering him a tremendous opportunity for a national audience," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines.

"Unless the bottom drops out, his work in Iowa is done and I don't see much risk in it. But the potential benefits are huge," he said, also noting Huckabee could reach more Iowans on the television than he could out on the hustings.

The exposure could also raise Huckabee's profile in upcoming contests in New Hampshire and South Carolina and reach well beyond his evangelical Christian base.

On Monday, Huckabee stirred some controversy when he decided at the last minute not to run a television ad critical of Romney -- then showed it to reporters, ensuring its got a wide airing.

Huckabee defended the heavily criticized move, saying he had decided to keep the campaign positive despite Romney's negative commercials aimed at his record.

Huckabee has specialized in unorthodox campaign stunts. The day after Christmas, he appealed for the support of gun owners by hunting pheasants in the snow-coated fields of Iowa. He often campaigns with action actor and martial arts guru Chuck Norris and sometimes play bass with a local band.

(Additional reporting by Joanne Kenen, editing by Lori Santos and Alan Elsner)

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