Huckabee campaign catches fire with Iowa's big guns

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Like the strong silent types played by John Wayne, whose birthplace is just down the road, the men gathered in Rudy's are not the talkative sort. Hurrying to get into position in the woods before sun-up, the hunters are in the cafe fortifying themselves against the freezing weather with biscuits and gravy, the hearty Iowan speciality of corn bread smothered in sausage gravy.

It was the first Saturday of Iowa's winter deer-hunting season and the men in their bright orange overalls and parkas were aware that the eyes of the world were on the state, where in three weeks' time as few as 600,000 voters will play a major role in selecting the candidate likely to be the next US president.

Eventually one hunter breaks the silence, volunteering that he supports Mike Huckabee, the deeply conservative former evangelical preacher now surging ahead in the Iowa polls. A chorus of approval comes from around the tiny cafe as the men dip into their corn bread breakfasts. In a heartbeat, they were gone, gathering up their shotguns and cartridges as they headed for the frozen woods.

Martin White, another Iowa hunter, set out the reasons he is supporting Mr Huckabee. "I'm a single- issue voter," he explained, "and I will not support anyone with a history of favouring gun control. Period.

"The other Republican candidates are all against gun control, but when you blend in all his values, like his opposition to abortion, he comes out on top," he said. "I liked him from the get-go, and my wife feels the same, and she is not a hunter."

He was dismissive of Rudy Giuliani "He's really out of step with the Republican base" and sympathetic towards Mitt Romney, who he described as a "heck of a nice guy". "Personally I'm not uncomfortable with his Mormon religion," he said, "but for many round here, the jury's still out."

What surprises, in the wake of last week's shopping mall massacre of eight people in nearby Omaha, is that no presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, will even discuss whether assault weapons should be kept off the market. Gun control is the most sure-fire way to end a political career.

Pastor John Shaul is not a hunter himself, but has a "concealed carry" permit enabling him to have a hidden handgun on him wherever he goes. He is also an organiser for Mr Huckabee, who now leads in Iowa's polls by almost 14 points, with the support of 35 percent of the Republican electorate. The Huckabee campaign resonates with the state's gun-loving Conservative Christians.

Pastor Shaul sees no contradiction with being a man of God and packing a pistol: "It's there only if needed and, of course, the hope is that it is never needed." What attracted him to the Huckabee campaign, Pastor Shaul said, was the candidate's "authenticity and his calm assurance and, especially, his pro-life position."

"There's something wrong with a nation that is prepared to kill 50 million babies through abortion, over a 40-year period," he said, "and it must end."

If elected president, Mr Huckabee says he will pack the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade (the Supreme Court decision that all abortions are permissible up to the point where the foetus becomes "viable") and seek a constitutional amendment to ban most abortions. That goes down well in Iowa, but could prove more difficult in the New Hampshire primary, where he is fourth behind Mr Romney, John McCain, and Mr Giuliani.

But a few miles from Rudy's, David Gilmore, a farmer, waited for his neighbours to move before revealing his political leanings. "People like Mike Huckabee make me nervous, when they wave a bible and a flag at the same time," he said. "I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, one of very few in Iowa, so my vote will not be with the Republicans, but with Barack Obama, who I think is sincere," he added.

Soon a pick-up truck stopped and Ryan Horn rolled down the window to say hello. He pulled back the tailgate to reveal his quarry. First there was the head of a deer with a fine rack, soon to be mounted on his wall. There were also pheasants killed that morning. Then came the surprise. These hunters were not for Huckabee, but for Hillary Clinton, who is putting up a fierce last minute resistance to snatch the Democratic victory in Iowa back from Senator Obama. "She is by far the best candidate out there," said Mr Horn, cocking his shotgun, "of that there is no doubt."