The Chuckabee Show Hits New Hampshire
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The power of Chuck Norris was on display last Sunday when a heckler interrupted Mike Huckabee at an overflowing event in rural New Hampshire. Seconds after a young baritone in the back of the Windham High School gym began screaming about the candidate's ties to the Council on Foreign Relations, the former governor pointed to the source of disorder and rhetorically tazed him with a threat his rivals can only dream of. "Don't make me send Chuck back there," deadpanned Huckabee.
That was all it took. The capacity crowd responded with sustained, whooping applause. Homemade signs of Norris firing machine guns bounced up and down. The real Norris, sitting onstage with his wife, smiled but did not blush. Along with helping Huckabee draw some of the biggest crowds on the Republican side of the campaign trail, Chuck Norris proved himself the ultimate heckler-neutralizer. The crowd was still applauding when Huckabee issued a gracious pardon, saying, "No, we're not going to beat him up. This is America."
Chuck Norris' America. Norris' viral touch is so golden these days it's a wonder the heckler didn't scream, "Don't Chuck me, bro!" as state troopers manhandled him out of the building. This scene, if captured on someone's cell-phone camera, no doubt would have sparked yet another Chuckabee YouTube pandemic like the "Facts" commercial that garnered 1.5 million hits in the runup to Mike Huckabee's Iowa surprise. And in fact people were echoing Huckabee's Norris line as they shuffled out of Sunday's rally. "Don't make me sic Chuck on you!" one teenager warned his sister in the parking lot. The whole family laughed. Nobody laughs coming out of a Mitt Romney event.
On the stump Norris also likes to tell the story of how he came to know and endorse Huckabee. Uninspired by the other candidates courting his support, Norris discovered Huckabee when an 18-year-old blogger from Oregon wrote him and told him he should look into his candidacy. Norris did and began praising the candidate on WorldNetDaily.com, where he writes a column. Huckabee then contacted Norris to set up a personal meeting. They hit it off, and soon the former pastor from Arkansas was making plans to stump with Norris, an aging action-hero punch line newly reborn as a kitsch Internet superphenomenon.
Watching the Chuck & Huck Show, it can be hard to remember who is running for president of the United States and who is running in an infomercial for Total Gym. Turning the Oprah & Obama Show on its head, it's Huckabee who preps audiences for Norris. "I know who you really came to see," he tells excited crowds peppered with homemade signs that say "cHuck!" Sample surveys of crowds suggest Huckabee is more right than he might think about who's filling the houses. More than once in New Hampshire, Huckabee was mentioned after Norris but before the free doughnuts by organizers and staffers pleading patience during delays. Ovations for Norris are as loud as, if not louder than, they are for Huckabee, who has found a sure-fire applause line in joking that Norris will be his secretary of defense.
The duo appeared together at nearly all of Huckabee's mobbed New Hampshire events. The politician lauds the actor for "exemplifying the spirit of America" with his charity work and personal success story. But Huckabee knows it isn't charity work that brings people to see Chuck Norris, and the physically unthreatening candidate squeezes everything he can out of his surrogate's reputation for kicking superhuman amounts of villainous ass. Veering into carnie barker territory, Huckabee proudly describes Norris as "the toughest guy in the world." Occasionally he gets a little carried away. At a charity event in Londonderry, Huckabee pointed to Norris and informed a packed cafeteria of supporters and independents, "Actually, he could take all of you out." It isn't just hecklers who get threatened on the Chuckabee campaign trail, it's everyone. And they love it.
The threats against the good people of New Hampshire have come at the expense of more serious promises, made in Iowa and elsewhere, to reclaim the nation for Christ and jail abortion doctors. In Huckabee's revamped New England stump speech, the word "chokehold" generally appears several times in relation to Norris' impressive ability to deny human beings oxygen. (Both men like to tell the story of how Norris once accidentally choked a Marine unconscious in Iraq while posing for a picture.) The word "church," meanwhile, appears just once or twice, always coming third in praising the bland Christian communitarian troika of "family, neighborhood and church."
Whether or not it's enough to win the Republican nomination, Norris and Huckabee have a good shtick going, available in both Christian and secular flavors. At its heart are two personable guys from humble beginnings who talk a good game about the Christian duty to help the less fortunate. Despite being a clunky, almost childlike speaker ("Education is very passionate to me"), Norris tells moving success stories from his organization Kick Start, which helps at-risk youth straighten out through free martial arts training. But Norris grows more dangerous the longer he has the mic. His discussion of Kick Start always dead-ends with his deep regret that he wasn't able to stop the Columbine massacre with karate lessons. His endorsement of Huckabee's FairTax plan consists of complaining about how much he pays his tax advisers and expressing disgust at the way "sheiks come over here and buy jets and don't pay enough luxury taxes."
If it seems like an unlikely pair, it really isn't. Huckabee and Norris share a long-held and deeply religious social conservatism. More important for their chemistry on stage and in the campaign bus, they also share a belief that they are outsiders in their respective worlds. Norris openly admits that he is considered a no-talent rube in Hollywood, and Huckabee has declared war against a corporate Republican establishment that sees him as a deluded and dangerous small-state populist. "I've been getting destroyed by the critics for 30 years," Norris likes to say on the stump. "And I know Mike Huckabee understands, because, boy, they really hate him on Wall Street."
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance writer.