(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
When Mike Huckabee neared the end of his speech to the thousands of Iowans about to vote in the straw poll for Republican presidential candidates Saturday, he drew on a personal experience at a faraway place for inspiration: a family visit to Yad Vashem.
"I wanted them to see what happens when good people just sit back and do nothing, when they don't act," the former Arkansas governor said, "because what happened to the millions of Jews who were killed during the reign of terror under Adolf Hitler in World War II [happened] because a lot of decent people, calling themselves Christians, simply looked the other way."
At the end of the tour of Yad Vashem, Huckabee watched his 11-year-old daughter Sarah, who had been silent throughout the visit, sign the guest book. "She wrote words I'll never forget as long as I live. These are the words she wrote: 'Why didn't somebody do something?'"
To rousing applause, Huckabee told the audience on Saturday that Americans needed to take action: "Let it never be that some day in this wonderful country that we call home, that some father has to look over his daughter's shoulder and watch her write words like that."
He challenged them to use the straw poll to free politics from money, to vote for him despite his lack of resources rather than for other, well-funded, campaigns.
"Ladies and gentlemen, right here in Ames, Iowa, you're the somebody. You can do something," Huckabee said. "You can help this entire country decide that it's not going to elect a president based on the raising of money, but based on the raising of the hopes and the ideas that can make us a better, freer and safer nation."
Some of them seemed to listen, as Huckabee garnered a surprise second place with 18 percent of the straw poll, ahead of survey results and expectations that he would fare worse.
Former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the straw poll, maintained his lead to come away with 31.5% of the tally. Ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the national front-runner, only pulled in 1.3% of the vote, with other leading contenders Arizona Sen. John McCain and the undeclared Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, getting 1.4% and less than 1%, respectively. But none of them chose to campaign for the event and their supporters largely stayed home.
Romney, in contrast, spent by far the most money in a massive effort to get backers to the poll. A non-binding vote, candidates typically buy the $35 admission ticket needed to vote and supply buses and food to their followers.
Huckabee, however, maintained that he didn't do that, spending a fraction of Romney's total, with no paid TV ads and no rented buses. He said he received almost twice as many votes as the number of tickets his campaign had purchased, meaning individuals paid their own way to vote for him or used tickets paid for by other campaigns to back Huckabee.
The Huckabee campaign hopes this will position their candidate as the carrier of the conservative evangelical torch. This powerful constituency has yet to settle on a candidate, and another competitor for their support, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, only came in third on Saturday night despite having made a big push for votes.
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, where the straw poll was held, said Brownback was the biggest loser of the night while "Romney emerges as the biggest winner."
He could get a boost from this that will elevate him into the top tier of candidates nationwide, she said.
"Huckabee will get a bounce, but I don't see him bouncing onto the national stage," Bystrom added.
Huckabee will still face a stiff challenge for conservatives' votes from Thompson and has failed to convince them unequivocably of his electability.
But the results were enough for Huckabee to claim a win. Previously a pastor, he compared the results he received from a small amount of money to a miracle reportedly performed by Jesus when he provided abundant supplies of food for hungry people. It was, he said, "Two fishes, five loaves, and it feeds the thousands."
"Tonight is a great victory for us," Huckabee told reporters and supporters thronged around him, with his choked-up daughter Sarah, now 25, nearby. "It shows what happens when people go out and do something."