Huckabee Hopes for New Hampshire Boost

The Associated Press
Saturday, December 1, 2007; 6:49 AM

CONCORD, N.H. -- Barely a blip on New Hampshire's political radar screen a month ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is generating buzz, curiosity and speculation that a decent showing here could secure his spot in the top tier of GOP presidential contenders.

Few expect Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher with a strong evangelical following in Iowa, to finish first in this more libertarian and secular state's Jan. 8 primary. But even a third-place finish here could serve him well, analysts say, especially if it follows a Jan. 3 victory in Iowa, where polls show him on the heels of front-runner Mitt Romney.

"He's the man with the momentum this week," University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala said Friday, as Huckabee began a three-day state swing.

On the surface, at least, Huckabee's campaign in New Hampshire seems far more energized following the latest Iowa poll results and his performance in Wednesday's televised debate in Florida.

"There are more cameras here today than there used to be people" at Huckabee events, said supporter Stuart Arnett, a Concord economic development consultant, as he watched a throng of local and national journalists jockey for space at the day's first event.

As a Democrat, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch can hardly endorse Huckabee, but he warmly introduced him as "my friend" to 125 people at a Concord Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Despite the hoopla, Huckabee remains far less known here than Romney, who was governor of neighboring Massachusetts; Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor; and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who won the 2000 New Hampshire GOP primary. Unlike Huckabee, all three have been running TV ads here for weeks, and they have better organizations on the ground.

At Friday's luncheon, many people seemed more curious than committed. In a sometimes rambling, often humorous 30-minute speech, Huckabee presented himself as a can-do, nuts-and-bolts former Republican governor who worked with Democratic legislators to improve schools and government services.

America is ready for a president like him, he suggested. "People today are angry at their government because it's dysfunctional," he said.

Often, Huckabee was more eloquent in describing problems than solutions. America must become energy-independent, he said, without explaining how. Security worries have made air travel unpleasant, he said, without detailing how he would change it.

He was more specific about Social Security. Americans should be offered "a tax-free buyout" of their stake in the program, he said, which would give them a lump of money to invest or spend while ending the government's "long-term obligation" to them.

He defended his "fair tax" proposal to end all taxes on income and investments and to replace them with a large federal sales tax. It is not "some kooky, way-out, nutty idea," as some have suggested, he said.

Huckabee did not mention his religious faith until reporters asked him about it after the speech.

"My message is not different in New Hampshire than it is in Iowa or South Carolina or anywhere else," he said. "Sometimes I get asked a lot of questions about faith and the evangelicals, because I am one.

"I didn't bring out any Bible verses," he said, but instead focused on education, health care, secure borders and a new tax structure. "People need not be afraid just because I have belief."

Susan Curley, a paralegal attending the lunch, said she is an undecided Republican voter "intrigued" by Huckabee.

"I'm not sure I agree with all his positions," she said, such as eliminating personal and corporate income taxes. "But on the core issues small government, pro-life, immigration he has come to the forefront" in her mind, she said.

Curley said she was surprised by the turn of events. "With all the hype about Rudy" she said, "I suspected (Giuliani) would jump to the front and stay there. He hasn't."

As for Huckabee's evangelical background, she said, "it matters not a bit."

© 2007 The Associated Press