CLEAR LAKE, Iowa – Center stage at the renowned Surf Ballroom, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee gave the bass guitar all he had: “Born to be Wild,” followed by “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” Tweens, meanwhile, snapped cell phone pictures of the 52-year-old candidate and occasional rocker. Huckabee laughed, his dimples deepening in his cheeks. His campaign was hot. Life was good.

“We’re celebrating a lot of things,” he said excitedly from the stage. “Get on your feet.” The former governor of Arkansas was playing his dream venue Friday night, surrounded by friends and adored by the crowd.

After weeks of steadily rising numbers, he had just inched past former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll. More popular than Romney! And all this love was turning into gold. Huckabee staffers were raising more money than ever. They even had to hire more people to answer the phones, the candidate said between songs, beaming at his audience.

Since Oct. 1, the campaign had raised more than $800,000 – small change for some of the other candidates perhaps, but significant bucks for one who has had trouble breaking out of the second-tier. “People gave us what we’re going to sing about,” he said, before launching into The Beatles “Money.”

Outside, cars were still pulling up to the Surf Ballroom, with many concert-goers driving several hours to hear the candidate play with his band, Capitol Offense. Although some might consider soft rock a phonic provocation, there was little offensive about the music — mostly covers of classics from the 1950s and onward. “Welcome Governor Mike Huckabee,” read a sign above the concert hall. “Surf’s up.”

The crowd had grown to several hundred people inside the concert hall decked out with paintings of surf and water to look like a beach shack. “In case you haven’t heard, we did really well in the Ames straw poll,” Huckabee called out from the stage. (He finished second after Romney in that August testing of the waters.) Current polls show Romney, Huckabee and Fred Thompson as the favored candidates in the Iowa GOP caucuses, scheduled for Jan. 3.

Chuck Laudner, executive director of Iowa’s Republican Party, was tapping his foot to the music.

“Events like these help,” said Laudner. “It’s not your typical event but they’ll be talking about it long after it’s over.”

From the stage, Huckabee reminded the crowd that it was important to show that “conservative Republican Christian believers can have as much fun as everyone else.” The lead singer, a pastor from Arkansas, smiled broadly. He was wearing torn denim jeans and a T-shirt advertising the Journey Church.

“You guys in Iowa are cooler than we thought you were,” Huckabee said, with unrestrained enthusiasm. Huckabee, who is against both abortion and gay rights, is particularly popular among social conservatives in Iowa.

Conservative bloggers have dubbed Huckabee “The Second Man From Hope” – the implied first being former President Clinton.

“He’s a conservative but he can bring in wider support,” said Adam Freed, 31, a Huckabee fan. “This could also help bring in young people.” Still, not counting those in the audience who brought their children with them, Freed was among the youngest in the crowd.

Huckabee’s band has opened for Willie Nelson and Percy Sledge and played at President Bush’s inaugural balls in 2000 and 2004. The band members worked in Huckabee’s Arkansas administration during the day, and practiced in the basement of the governor’s mansion at the night.

It was Huckabee’s long-time dream to play at the Surf Ballroom – a venue revered throughout the Midwest. Chuck Berry played here as did Jerry Lee Lewis and Ike and Tina Turner. Buddy Holly famously played his last concert at the ballroom on Feb. 2, 1959. (The following day, he and two other members of his band were killed in a plane crash.)

Throughout Friday night’s concert, Huckabee staffers sold T-shirts (“I Like Mike,”) the Huckabee book (“From Hope to Higher Ground”) and other campaign paraphernalia. A guitar — signed by Huckabee and the band’s lead guitarist from Boston were among the night’s auction items.

By 8:30 p.m., people began to head out. On stage, Huckabee began a new tune: “Taking care of business.”

“We’ve got other things to do,” said John Laflin, 71, apologetically, as he sneaked out with is wife, Shirley. “And it’s not really my speed. I’m a Frank Sinatra fan.”

AP-NY-10-27-07 2008EDT

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