Ready or Not?

By Michael D. Shear
Saturday, December 15, 2007

The big question for Mike Huckabee in the next few weeks may be: Can he handle success?

After languishing in the background for most of the campaign, the former Arkansas governor is suddenly a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. But unlike the longtime leaders, he has not spent months building a robust campaign organization to take advantage of his new status.

As a result, Huckabee is poised to test the premise that winning the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary is all about organization. If it is, his flame is destined to be snuffed out.

His campaign in Iowa, where he is now the front-runner, is relying on an informal network of clergy and home-schooling activists to take the place of a more established organization. His advisers hope the passion that many in those communities feel for Huckabee will be enough to get them to vote for him.

That idea runs counter to the strategy of his main rival in Iowa, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has been methodically organizing supporters there for a year. Romney's Iowa team includes paid staffers as well as "super volunteers" who are paid a monthly stipend to organize caucus support for him.

Romney advisers say they always knew their campaign would face a stiff challenge at some point in Iowa. They just didn't know it would be from Huckabee.

Neither did anyone else.

When Huckabee entered the race, he did so without fanfare. To the extent that he was known in Washington, it was for his well-publicized weight loss while governor and his subsequent book detailing the importance of slimming down. In early polling, Huckabee barely registered.

His efforts to break into the top tier of candidates was further stymied by a lackluster fundraising effort. While others were raising tens of millions of dollars each, Huckabee raised just several hundred thousand during the first three months of the year. His second-quarter totals were equally dismal. That left him without a staff or travel budget of any note.

Huckabee made a stab at winning the Iowa straw poll in Ames this summer, pouring what little resources he had into the nonbinding vote. He was outmatched by Romney's team, but he managed to come in second and beat Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, once assumed to be the favorite of Iowa conservatives.

He went on to gain attention and praise for his performances at the Republican debates, where the former Baptist minister was, by turns, funny, well-spoken and passionate about his faith. It was that focus on religion and his connection to Christian conservatives that ultimately vaulted him to serious consideration.

In Washington this fall, Huckabee told attendees of a "values voters" conference that he was one of them. The speech got their attention, and Huckabee started moving up in the polls, prompting a rapid series of attacks on his gubernatorial record.

Rivals have questioned his commitment to lowering taxes, pointing out several increases he approved as governor. They have focused attention on a controversial parole case in which a released convict raped and murdered again, and they raised questions about his ethics. Now, with the Iowa caucuses just three weeks away, the question is whether Huckabee peaked too soon. If the new scrutiny pulls him down before Jan. 3, could find his brief time in the spotlight over as quickly as it began.

But if the Arkansan survives, he could topple Romney in Iowa and ride a wave of momentum into New Hampshire five days later -- a victory that would once again test his financial resources and organization.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company