By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
After his disappointing showing in South Carolina, Mike Huckabee was supposed to be a spent force. The former Arkansas governor's triumph in the Iowa caucuses would be relegated to the history books and deemed no more significant than Christian evangelist Pat Robertson's defeat of George H.W. Bush in the Hawkeye State two decades before.
But Huckabee stormed back into the race yesterday with wins not just in his home state of Arkansas but also in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and West Virginia, complicating the race for the Republican nomination all over again.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had expected to emerge from Super Tuesday with the nomination virtually locked up, was left facing still more questions about his ability to win in deep red Republican states. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was left wondering why he could not win the conservative votes McCain was losing.
"Sometimes one small, smooth stone is more effective than a suit of armor," Huckabee told cheering supporters in Little Rock. "We're still on our feet, and much to the amazement of many, we're getting there, folks, we're getting there."
Even after his victory in Iowa last month, Huckabee has been running his campaign on vapors. Ed Rollins, Huckabee's chief political strategist, said he would be astonished if Huckabee has spent more than $10 million on his candidacy.
Over the past weeks, Romney has said repeatedly that Huckabee was more a nuisance than a threat, a candidate who should drop out of the race and leave it to the only two Republicans who could reasonably claim to be contenders for the nomination. Huckabee complained during last week's California debate that he was being treated as a third wheel.
But Huckabee focused his limited resources almost exclusively on the Southeast, with old-fashioned, retail politicking. He presented himself as the only true social conservative in the race, jabbing at Romney as a flip-flopper as he pulled conservatives disenchanted with McCain into his orbit.
"Conservatives had the opportunity to pick a real conservative in the South," Rollins said. "And they did."
Even as McCain was claiming the mantle of front-runner in his victory speech last night, he was compelled to congratulate Huckabee on his sweep of the South. "Not for the first time, he surprised the rest of us," McCain said.
Romney supporters and aides continued to show Huckabee little respect despite the Super Tuesday victories. Romney, a Mormon, was never going to win the Southern Baptist Southeast, one senior Huckabee strategist said. But Huckabee has few remaining states where the demographics favor him: Only Mississippi is waiting to vote in the Deep South.
"He deserves credit for hanging in there and being the winsome personality he's been. We've all enjoyed him," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a Romney backer. "But everybody knows Mike is not going to be in the final two. That hasn't changed."
Indeed, to Romney aides, Huckabee's victories were simply an ominous sign for McCain, who continues to lose the vote of self-described conservatives.
But McCain aides and Republican strategists saw Huckabee's surprising strength as the end of the line for Romney, who has been unable to turn anti-McCain sentiments to his benefit. After his performance yesterday, Huckabee will stay in the race and will continue to take votes from the Republican Party's anti-McCain right wing, said Alex Vogel, a GOP strategist not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns.
Huckabee intends to focus efforts on Texas, where Romney is hoping for a win. Louisiana and Kansas will also be on his target list, aides said.
"If Huckabee really won Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, West Virginia and Tennessee, he has effectively sealed off the right flank from Romney," Vogel said.
Romney limped out of Super Tuesday with enough strength to keep fighting.
"This campaign's going on," he proclaimed last night.
Wins in Massachusetts and the mountain West -- and a close race in California -- may be enough to keep him going, even if he winds up in third place in the delegate count. Having put more than $35 million of his money into his White House run, Romney was expected by no one to walk away now.
"No matter what anyone thinks, Romney is going to keep running," said Charlie Black, a senior McCain adviser. "That's fine. It's a free country. We need to get closer to the magic number before we start asking people to get out."
But with the field narrowing, Romney advisers said they must count on an anti-McCain brush fire -- fanned by conservative talk show hosts and personalities -- to burst into an inferno for Romney to make his move. Romney aides hope he will win big in the next round, when Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia open their polling places only to registered Republicans, depriving McCain of his independent support.
Wisconsin and Washington state will be open to independents Feb. 19, but they will award their delegates proportionately. Next up are Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island, where conservatives and New Englanders can be expected to go to Romney, the aides said. And by then, anti-McCain voices, such as Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson, could be pulling conservatives to Romney.
"Evangelicals and talk show hosts had been saying unkind things about McCain. Now, they're going to be gathering around Romney," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a strong Romney backer. "I think the longer it goes on, the better."
After Huckabee's wins yesterday, Rollins scoffed at that calculus. It may be a two-man race now, he said, but the third wheel is no longer from Arkansas.
"At the end of the day, this is where Republicans have to win, and if [Romney] can't attract significant support in the South, he has nowhere to go," Rollins said. "Romney's going to have to make the hard judgment . . . whether he has the money to keep spending like he is -- or whether he wants to keep spending it."