The Huckabeast Takes Iowa

Mike Huckabee's campaign has the only one. The Rev. John Brewer, a Baptist minister from Louisville, Ky., and his four young friends showed up driving it Dec. 27 at the Des Moines headquarters. Their contribution: a 40-foot, 20-ton bus.

That's right. It's the Huckabeast. Painted purple and festooned with a "Huckabee for President" banner across the windows, the Huckabeast gets five to seven miles to the gallon and costs $168 to fill its tank.

"Let's just say it's not a hybrid," said Brewer.

Brewer says he was inspired to drive the 600 miles from Louisville to Des Moines by some combination of God and Mike Huckabee; the former called him to service, the latter spoke to his views on immigration, gay marriage, and the IRS. By driving around rural towns and occasionally stopping to ask people in mall parking lots whether they're planning to caucus, Brewer and Co. say they hope not only to promote Huckabee to caucus-goers, but to demonstrate that the former governor's grassroots support extends beyond Iowa.

If this sounds like it's fitting into your stereotypes of Baptist preachers/Huckabee supporters, you're half-right. Brewer and his traveling companions--Carl, a 33-year-old student in a Baptist seminary; David, an 18-year-old community college freshman; Jonathan, an 18-year-old IT professional and Brewer's son; and James, a 16-year-old high school junior--certainly look the part. They're white, a little scruffy. David was wearing a Metallica sweatshirt with holes in the cuffs for his thumbs. Carl says he was tracked into special-needs classes most of his life. James and Jonathan are clean cut, in neat sweatshirts and scarves, and, despite their tender age, are quick to denounce taxes in their southern accents.

Brewer himself looks far younger than 46, with round, wire-rimmed glasses and a pale, smooth face. Articulate and warm, he does most of the talking, hewing to Huckabee's message of compassionate Christianity and religious tolerance. When the younger men have their say, Brewer takes a step back, puts his hands in the pockets of his slacks, and listens. He calls each one "my friend,'' they call him "Mr. Brewer." His stocking cap had a verse from Psalms stitched into the side.

The temptation might be to write them off as yokels, the political version of the Beverly Hillbillies. Certainly this week in Des Moines, where campaign staffers and national journalists have upped the ante on winter fashion--tall boots, fur-trimmed coats, ironic farmer hats pulled over the eyes--the Huckabeast looks quaint and the Brewer clan out of place. Yet Brewer and his bus are both sidestepping mainstream tactics and using them to their advantage. This morning, they get a mention on the front page of the Des Moines Register, and, in addition to our two hours together, they had an interview with the New York Times and an appearance on a radio show.

They also make their own media. David films everything for YouTube. (When I first saw him, he was lying on his stomach on the floor of campaign headquarters, presumably shooting something.) So far, the Huckabeast videos are gaining in popularity, with the latest getting over 2,500 hits. When the men arrived in Uttomwa, some of Huckabee's body guards recognized them from the Internet and ushered them into the front row of a rally--"spittin' distance" from the candidate, David said.

Brewer also runs a Meet-up out of Louisville, Bluegrass Warriors, where more than 100 people have found each other on the Internet and meet regularly in person to organize their support for Huckabee. Jonathan, who has experience in Web design, manages their MySpace page.

"This is the first year that the Internet has really taken off as a phenomenon in politics," said Brewer. "The grassroots is growing up alongside traditional campaign operations."

James added, "We're doing all the same stuff they're doing on Fox News and CNN. They're just not as enjoying it as much as we do, because they have to do it every day."

Brewer's clan is also politically experienced. The whole thing began when Brewer campaigned for a 2004 traditional marriage amendment in Kentucky. He purchased the bus for $5,000--most of it coming out of his own pocket--and spent another $7,000 removing the seats and getting it painted to take around the state. The bus, which is legally registered as an RV because it has fewer than five places to sit, served as both an advertisement for the cause and a practical way to carry signs and paraphernalia.

It also provided a built-in platform from which to speak (Brewer would like to add a short-distance radio to the bus) and, Brewer said, winking at me, "attracts media."

Energized by his policy campaign, Brewer also decided to run for state legislature. Carl, who saw somewhat of a mentor in Brewer, and James, who's president of the high school debate team and Future Business Leaders of America, volunteered to help. David, a political science major, found them through Meet-Up.

In the end, the amendment passed but Brewer lost. (Said Brewer, "It wasn't a good year for Republicans.") He did, however, still have the bus, and when Huckabee appeared to be the only candidate that represented Brewer's combination of traditional Christian faith and conservative GOP policies, Brewer simply dedicated his vehicle to a new purpose.

It's unclear what immediate impact Brewer and his bus have on Iowa caucus-goers. We spent about an hour in two mall parking lots, attracting a good deal of attention first by passersby, and then by mall security, who asked us to leave. Although a few people approached the bus asking for buttons or yard signs, and the boys intercepted some shoppers, one-on-one conversion doesn't seem to be what Brewer and the Huckabeast are about.

They simply want their presence known.

"This campaign season, I feel economic conservatives tried to push candidates onto social conservatives that just weren't acceptable," said Brewer. Huckabee, he believes, is the only candidate that is "truly a solid Christian."

"I don't know anybody else who'd be driving a bus for Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani," he said. "In a race like this, where a few percentage points matter, all the money won't help--you have to have an army on the ground. You have to turn the people out."

Brewer believes he's doing his part to broadcast support for Huckabee, trying to accomplish with five men, a bus, prayer, and the Internet what full-blown campaigns and hundreds of thousands of dollars have historically done. He also has no qualms about mixing politics, religion, and diesel fuel--and with Huckabee holding his own in Iowa, Brewer's attitude may very well be more mainstream than much of the political class is prepared for.

As we headed back downtown, Brewer slowed in front of the capitol building so James could get a picture. A trail of cars stacked up behind them, then came to a stop as Brewer opened the door of the bus with a little wheeze and let James stick his head out.

Someone honked behind us.

"They'll just have to wait," said Brewer. "There are some advantages to being big."