Huckabee scene more than cameo for Chuck Norris

Action hero finds a new fight in politics

Chuck Norris with Mike Huckabee on the campaign trail. Norris’s wife, Gena O’Kelley, is in center photo.
Chuck Norris with Mike Huckabee on the campaign trail. Norris’s wife, Gena O’Kelley, is in center photo. (Cheryl Senter/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Charlie Savage
Globe Staff / January 17, 2008

When Mike Huckabee took the stage after winning the Republican Iowa caucuses, the cameras zoomed in so far that they cut his wife, Janet, out of the frame. But tough-guy actor Chuck Norris, bearded and grinning in his plaid shirt, was still in the picture over Huckabee's left shoulder. So was Norris's wife, former model Gena O'Kelley.

Cameras do not zoom past Chuck Norris.

The 67-year-old retired martial arts champion and star of '80s action movies such as "Delta Force" and the '90s CBS television series "Walker, Texas Ranger" has reemerged in popular consciousness as one of the most visible figures in the 2008 presidential race. And Norris seems determined to roundhouse-kick America into supporting his fellow conservative Christian's candidacy.

To Norris, Huckabee is authentic. "Many of the candidates talk from the head on a prepared script, like I did as an actor," Norris said in an interview this week. "When I look at Huckabee, he's talking from the heart. That impresses me. He doesn't have a speech prepared."

While presidential candidates have long sought the glamour and fund-raising cachet of big-time celebrity supporters, the endorsers this year have become part of the branding of the candidates: Oprah Winfrey has given her aura of inclusiveness to Barack Obama, and John Mellencamp has lent his distinctive working-class patriotism to John Edwards.

And Norris, a retro icon of virility and heroic violence against Communists and terrorists, is giving a jolt of testosterone to a Republican who is widely perceived as likable and witty - but also weak on national security experience.

Norris was featured in Huckabee's first TV commercial and rode the campaign bus from stop to stop in Iowa and New Hampshire. Today, he will make a series of appearances with the candidate in South Carolina. This weekend, he is hosting a fund-raising webcast from his Texas ranch to help Huckabee buy TV ads to compete in next month's Super Tuesday.

Like many celebrities, Norris takes politics seriously and loves being part of the scene. But there is something even more hands-on about Norris's commitment to Huckabee. While Winfrey, Mellencamp, and other endorsers have spent short periods on the campaign trail, then returned to their day jobs, Norris has become something of an unofficial running mate for Huckabee, ever-present and indispensable.

"They seem to be taking this in some ways to the next level," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, adding that the Huckabee-Norris relationship is "like choosing a vice presidential candidate - kind of making up for your weakness."

As an actor, Norris plays stoic characters who let their guns and fists do the communicating. On the campaign trail, Norris comes off as talkative, even wonky, earnestly praising Huckabee's positions. He is especially taken with Huckabee's proposal to replace the income tax with a sales tax.

Huckabee, meanwhile, is the entertainer in their joint appearances, playing bass guitar with local bands, making his policy points through folksy stories, and keeping up a steady stream of self-deprecating humor. He jokingly promised a group of rowdy teens at one event in Henniker, N.H., that he would make Norris the secretary of defense, unleashing wild cheers, and he often says he knows most of the crowd really came to see Norris.

It is only half a joke: Norris says his humorous TV commercial with Huckabee, filmed back in the fall when Huckabee was still near the bottom of the polls, was downloaded more than 1.5 million times in 24 hours on YouTube. The attention may have helped fuel Huckabee's abrupt surge.

"My contribution, when we did that promo thing, it kind of lit a spark for Mike," Norris says. "But the thing is, that spark would have gone out if he hadn't had a message that people wanted to hear. But he had that message, and so the spark became a raging fire."

Norris, who also writes an online column in which he frequently expresses conservative Christian views, had never met the former Arkansas governor before writing a column in October endorsing Huckabee as a candidate who would "stand up for a Creator and against secularist beliefs."

After the column came out, the Huckabee campaign asked him to film the commercial. Norris later joined the candidate in Iowa and New Hampshire, when Huckabee was being barraged by attack ads from the better-funded Mitt Romney. As a surrogate, Norris has proved more than willing to play enforcer against Huckabee's rivals, especially the former Massachusetts governor.

"I don't like him," Norris said. "I just don't feel that Romney is speaking the truth. He speaks whatever he thinks people want to hear. . . . I have to commend Huckabee for not retaliating in a negative way. He could say, 'Look at Romney - he flip-flopped on abortion, he flip-flopped on gay marriage - what does he really stand for?' "

Norris has also called for public financing of campaigns because it is "really unfair" that Romney can dump millions into his campaign. He also thinks it is unfair that the press routinely mentions that Huckabee was a Baptist minister before becoming governor when they don't as often note that Romney was a "bishop in the Mormon church."

The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Norris's remarks.

This is not the first time Norris has lent his beard to a candidate who needed to macho up his image. In the 1988 presidential campaign, George H. W. Bush's campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, recruited Norris to travel with the vice president to help change his image. As Norris puts it, "The press was calling him a wimp."

Huckabee's image is also a little soft for a party that loves action heroes. He is known to many people as a formerly obese man who lost more than 100 pounds and now eats fruit and avoids sugary drinks. He is laid-back and never served in the military. And, more substantively, Huckabee's detractors note that he has little foreign policy experience.

But Norris - again getting tough on Huckabee's behalf - said most of the other candidates, despite giving "lip service" to taking a strong stand in the war on terrorism, don't have any real experience in foreign policy, either.

He notes, for instance, that "Rudy Giuliani was just mayor of New York, for crying out loud." The exception, he said, is John McCain, but he said the Arizona senator is too old and should be Huckabee's vice president so he can share his foreign policy experience. "No candidate can have all the right experience," Norris said. "What you do is you bring in the people who can help guide you in the right direction and make the right decisions."

Norris has let it be known he will do whatever is necessary to defend Huckabee. At one campaign stop in New Hampshire, a man began shouting at the former governor about why he was being advised by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization that is a favorite target of conspiracy theorists.

At first Huckabee ignored the man, but as he continued to disrupt the event, Huckabee won the crowd back and regained control by joking: "Don't make me send Chuck back there."

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