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Huckabee rocks the GOP candidate image

Where aw-shucks meets off-kilter: A 50-something preacher-turned-presidential-contender can be cool.

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When aides to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told the high school here that he wanted to play bass guitar with its band during a recent campaign stop, Mark Cripps grew uneasy.

As the longtime band teacher, Mr. Cripps knows how many rehearsals it takes for the teen musicians in this tiny west Iowa town to nail a song. Now a stranger of dubious musical talent – a GOP presidential hopeful no less – wanted to sit in on a couple of numbers with no run-through.

Cripps, a stocky man with the world-weary look of band instructors everywhere, wasn't taking any chances.

"I've got my bass player standing in the wings," he said, pacing nervously in the Woodbury Central High auditorium, as his students tuned up, awaiting the arrival of the Huckabee entourage that October morning. "I instructed the kids: No matter what happens, hang with the job."

Then Huckabee bounded on stage in boots and jeans, grabbed an electric bass, and bowled through "C Jam Blues," a song he'd never played before. His performance was more bravado than finesse. He bent back mid-song to consult with the 12th-grade bass player, who was standing behind him looking ill at ease. But there were no dropped beats, no goofed chords, and Cripps looked genuinely surprised.

"He knew how to ... I don't want to say 'fake it,' but 'survive it,' " Cripps said, as the news crews packed up. Cripps thought he might have even glimpsed politics in the governor's guitar shtick. "He was coming to show you, 'I can do this, I can take charge.'

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As Huckabee tells it, his cash-strapped parents bought his first electric guitar from a J.C. Penney catalog for Christmas 1966, after "months of begging." Huckabee was 11. (What is it about Hope, Ark., that inspires would-be presidents to pick up an instrument?)

"The young man played until his fingers almost bled," Huckabee blogged last year, referring to himself in the third person. His teenage bands played sock hops, talent shows, and Saturday night "country music jamborees," and went by names like The Misfits and The Sanction.

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