The message from last week’s coverage of the presidential race was that the “Huckaboom” is in full bloom.

“Mike Huckabee has capitalized on his Iowa surge and roared to the front of the Republican pack in South Carolina, largely on the strength of social conservatives frustrated with the crop of candidates,” declared a story posted Dec. 10 on “We’ve been on the stove simmering for about 11 months,” Huckabee said. “Somehow in the last two weeks, the lid blew off and the pot started boiling.”

On CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” Huckabee’s hiring of Ed Rollins to run his campaign was cited as another sign of a surge by a once prohibitive underdog now breathing down frontrunner Rudy Giuliani’s neck. For his part, Rollins compared his new client to the most hallowed icon in modern Republican Party history: “Governor Huckabee has probably inspired me as much as Ronald Reagan,” the new hire waxed about his new boss.

The pastor, bass player, weight loss guru, and former Arkansas Governor was not the only story last week driving coverage of the presidential race, which reached its 2007 high water mark for the year. All told, the campaign filled 26% of the newshole as measured by PEJ’s news coverage Index for Dec. 9-14.

On the Democratic side, Oprah Winfrey’s appearances on the stump for Barack Obama—as well as some new poll numbers—fueled the story line that Obama was tightening his battle with frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

But even with “the Oprah effect” generating major coverage last week, no narrative seemed more compelling than the improbable rise of Huckabee. (Newsweek’s Dec. 17 cover headline, “Holy Huckabee!” was a double entendre, referring both to the candidate’s overt religiosity and the stunning success, at least to this point, of his long shot campaign.)

As PEJ’s “Invisible Primary” study of campaign coverage revealed, for the first five months of 2007, Huckabee was barely a speck on the media radar screen. In fact, he was the focus of fewer than a dozen of the 1,742 campaign stories examined in that study. Yet last week, Huckabee narrowly trailed only Hillary Clinton as the leading newsmaker in the coverage of any subject—finishing ahead of everyone from Barack Obama and George Bush to Oprah and George Mitchell.

With Huckabee helping dominate headlines, the presidential campaign was the top News Index story Dec. 9-14 for the sixth time in seven weeks. Last week, it led all five media sectors. And as has been the case often, it generated the most attention on cable, where it filled fully 40% of the airtime studied.

Rounding out the newshole last week, the release of Former Senator George Mitchell’s report naming scores of ballplayers allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs made steroids the second-biggest story, at 7%. That was followed by U.S. domestic terrorism—and the growing controversy over the destroyed terrorist interrogation tapes—which also registered at 7%. The fourth-biggest story was the series of winter storms that moved across the country (6%), followed in fifth place by events on the ground in Iraq (4%).

Last week, the three different threads of the Iraq story—the Washington-based policy debate, the situation inside Iraq, and the war and the homefront—combined to account for only 5% of the newshole, one of the lowest Iraq coverage weeks of the year. That’s further evidence that a war that once dominated media coverage is ebbing significantly as a major news event.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

For all the media attention the candidate now basks in—the “Huckaboom” or “Huckamania” as New York magazine dubbed it or even “Huckabee? Really?” as the New York Times offered—he also entered a new zone. It is the moment when the media, fueled in part by his rivals, stop and say this guy might win the nomination. Who the heck is he? It is the moment when the media go from covering a candidate to also scrubbing him.

Last week, the ex-Arkansas Governor found himself on the defensive about everything from the freeing of a convicted rapist to comments he made about the Mormon religion.

On Dec. 9, a front-page New York Times story highlighted this “new scrutiny of his record in Arkansas” by focusing on two cases from Huckabee’s past record. One was his role as governor in the release of convicted rapist Wayne DuMond who later sexually assaulted and murdered a woman. Another was his 1992 position that people with AIDS should be kept in isolation.

Two nights later, warning that “when you go to the front in the polls, reporters start looking at your past,” NBC anchor Brian Williams introduced a story about Huckabee’s “unusual record of receiving gifts” as governor. The report, by correspondent Lisa Myers, documented some of the “hundreds of gifts, large and small,” that Huckabee accepted while in office. While those gifts weren’t deemed illegal, Myers noted that the State Ethics Commission had admonished Huckabee on numerous occasions.

On Dec. 12, the talk was of another Huckabee controversy. Reviewing that day’s GOP debate in Iowa, Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith said the “biggest news” was Huckabee’s post-debate apology to Mitt Romney for remarks that appeared to be critical of Romney’s Mormon faith. Huckabee’s words, which appeared fairly high up in a Dec. 16 New York Times magazine profile, were actually in the form of a question: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

The next sentence in the Times article explained why everything Huckabee says is being examined so closely these days. “In this unpredictable primary season,” the story continued, “Mike Huckabee’s surge in Iowa — and beyond — is perhaps the greatest surprise.”

Mitchell Plays Hardball

Although presidential politics dominated the week, the revelations in the Mitchell report—which named nearly 90 players including superstar pitcher Roger Clemens and home run king Barry Bonds—was the No. 2 story of the week, at 7%. Even though this was really just a two-day story—Dec. 13 and 14—it commanded 10% of the airtime on cable. The scandal was also the third-biggest story (at 6%) in newspapers, proving it was newsworthy enough to merit front-page, rather than simply sports page coverage. The chief reaction was both shock and anger.

That was evident by the reaction of the Boston Globe, which ran the headline, “A long star-studded drug roster,” stripped across the top of page 1 on Dec. 14. The take-no-prisoners opening paragraph summed up the report’s conclusion as “scores of purported drug cheats…subverted the integrity of the national pastime for nearly 20 years while major league owners and union bosses all but looked the other way…”

The Dec. 13 CBS evening newscast opened with a graphic of a syringe stuck in a baseball while guest anchor Harry Smith intoned, “Tonight, the baseball hall of shame.” Correspondent Armen Keteyian reported that Mitchell’s investigation had concluded that “illegal drugs were part of the lineup of every team in baseball, beginning in the mid-1990s.” And despite all the big names ensnared in Mitchell’s net—including seven Most Valuable Players Award winners—the CBS story suggested the worst might not be over.

“Might this be just the tip of the iceberg?” Smith asked Keteyian.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” came the response.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Most of daytime cable TV was not included in this week’s sample from Wednesday, December 12, and Thursday, December 13, due to the coverage of the two Iowa presidential debates. However, MSNBC did not cover the Democratic debate on Thursday, so MSNBC afternoon programming was included for that day. Also, CBS radio news headlines from the morning of Thursday, December 13, were not included due to a technical error.