Gamble Paid Off for Huckabee on Tuesday
Thursday, February 7, 2008
After a dispiriting loss nearly three weeks ago in South Carolina, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee made the risky decision to sidestep the pivotal Florida primary and turn his attention to a handful of Super Tuesday contests.
Already slipping from the spotlight and with little money to spend, the Huckabee campaign was in danger of further marginalizing itself by skipping the marquee matchup in Florida, where former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had joined the race. But campaign aides did not think the campaign had the money or support to place in the top two, and they feared that a distant finish would cripple Huckabee's chances.
Better, they reasoned, to turn their efforts to half a dozen Southern and Midwestern states that voted Tuesday, hoping a strong showing would propel the campaign back into the thick of a splintered race.
The maneuver worked. Huckabee dominated the South, winning his native Arkansas as well as Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia. "It was better for us not to spend money in what could be a bottomless pit of media markets in Florida," said Bob Wickers, a top Huckabee adviser.
While John McCain's victories in major states across the country cemented his front-runner status, Huckabee's strong showing allowed him to again make the case that he is the conservative alternative to the senator from Arizona, a position that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has also tried to claim.
"Huckabee was a surprise," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a McCain supporter. "Any state where he could have had any strength he performed very well."
Huckabee still faces daunting odds in his bid for the nomination. His dismal showings in New York, California and other major states that have small numbers of evangelical Christians revealed the limits of his chances to build a national following. And even with his strong appeal among evangelicals, Huckabee did not win a majority of their votes on Super Tuesday. Had he done so he would likely have added a triumph in Missouri, where many born-again Christians opted for McCain or Romney.
Huckabee will spend the next couple of days in Kansas, where he hopes the state's large number of evangelicals will carry him to victory on Saturday, before moving on to Virginia for a Tuesday contest in another state with a sizable evangelical electorate. Huckabee will be in the District on Saturday, when he will attempt to rally conservatives to his cause in a speech to the influential Conservative Political Action Committee.
Exit polls in states where Huckabee ran strong, such as Georgia, showed him beating Romney among self-described conservatives, while McCain won moderates. "The South is the base for conservatives, and that's where we won," said Sarah Huckabee, the candidate's daughter and the campaign's national field director.
To win those Southern states, Huckabee had a few breaks. Former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, who ran strongly in some of the same culturally conservative areas that Huckabee relied on in South Carolina, dropped out, allowing Huckabee to cast himself as the only Southerner in the race.
On the stump over the past week, Huckabee, who has a much less pronounced Southern accent than even some members of his family, accentuated his drawl and described how "there's a lot of fight left in this dog," as he angrily rebutted the argument by Romney and some conservative activists that he should drop out of the race so the anti-McCain vote could be consolidated.
Also, while Huckabee focused on the South, McCain and Romney campaigned nationwide before Feb. 5, making only quick swings through Southern states.
Those advantages are likely to go away as the campaign returns to more of a state-by-state schedule.
Also, with McCain increasingly looking like the party's nominee, it's not certain Huckabee would pick up votes if Romney were to drop out. And conservative activists, such as radio host Sean Hannity, are unlikely to rally behind Huckabee, who has made some gaffes on foreign policy and has a plan for a national consumption tax that has been criticized by a variety of experts as not generating enough money to fund the government. Huckabee has also taken to bashing the Republican establishment.
"His support is concentrated among evangelicals and kind of tops off," King said. "He is going to run out of areas where he can be a factor."
Huckabee has pledged to stay in the race until at least March 4, when Texas holds a primary. "Our people are revived," he said on NBC's "Today " show yesterday morning. "They're ready to go."