BURBANK, California (Reuters) - Republican Mike Huckabee played some electric bass guitar with TV host Jay Leno’s band on Wednesday, grabbing a shot of national media exposure on the eve of Iowa political caucuses that launch the U.S. presidential selection process.
The former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister flew from the snowy Midwest to sunny California to appear on the first new broadcast of NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” since the Hollywood writers’ strike forced the program into reruns on November 5.
In a brief detour from the hurly-burly of campaign stops through Iowa’s chilly community halls, the appearance with Leno gave Huckabee a chance to showcase his folksy humor, populist political message and personal story in a relaxed, casual setting on national TV.
“People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off. I think that’s part of what’s going on right now,” Huckabee said when Leno asked about his rapid rise from a second-tier candidate to an Iowa front-runner.
Leno joked that Huckabee’s place in the “top tier” of candidates “means during the debates he no longer has to wear a name tag.”
Returning from a commercial break, the camera caught Huckabee, who says he began studying guitar at age 11, playing a blues riff on electric bass as he sat in with “The Tonight Show” orchestra.
“Nice job,” Leno said.
His performance borrowed a page from another former Arkansas governor from the town of Hope — Bill Clinton, who famously played “Heartbreak Hotel” on the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992. That appearance is widely seen as a key moment in Clinton’s successful bid for the White House.
Huckabee’s “Tonight Show” moment was not entirely free of stress, however.
The politician found himself caught in the awkward position of crossing picket lines to come on Leno’s show while expressing support for striking writers, whose contract talks with major studios collapsed in acrimony last month.
Campaign spokeswoman Kirsten Fedewa said Huckabee “would only agree to join Jay, an active member of the Writers Guild, for the taping after he was assured that no replacement writers were being used in the show’s production.”
She added: “Governor Huckabee believes that the writers deserve to be fairly compensated” and was glad Leno had put his production crew back to work.
Huckabee said earlier that he did not think he would be crossing picket lines because he understood the writers had agreed to allow broadcasts of the late-night TV talk shows.
Leno’s CBS rival, David Letterman, whose production company produces his own show, did reach a deal with the Writers Guild of America allowing him to return with his writing team and the union’s blessing. But Leno and other late-night stars have no such agreement. The WGA, which represents the strikers, issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” in Huckabee’s move.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also jumped into the late-night TV game, appearing via satellite from Iowa to introduce Letterman’s “Late Show.”
“Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers strike,” Clinton said, standing in front of campaign posters. “Tonight he’s back. Oh well, all good things must come to an end.”
Huckabee’s detour to California was an unusual move in the final hours before the important Iowa caucuses, but some analysts thought the exposure on Leno could pay big dividends.
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 2 points, 28 percent to 26 percent, within the statistical margin of error.
Additional reporting by Dean Goodman, Joanne Kenen, editing by Lori Santos, Chris Wilson and Eric Walsh