Politics & Policy

What the Huck Happened?

From frontrunner to Florida failure -- but not dead yet.

Tampa, Fla. — Who was it that won Iowa again? Oh, yes, it was that pleasant Christian fellow. What ever happened to him?

Well, he’s still alive and well. His supporters show up to events in much greater numbers than Mitt Romney’s. They show greater enthusiasm than Romney’s supporters or those of John McCain.

Mike Huckabee told the crowd of 300 well wishers last night that he hadn’t expected so many people to show up for an event in an airport hangar at 9 P.M. “I’d underestimated the people of Florida,” he said. “And I think the national media has underestimated the wonderful people of Florida, too.”

Huckabee worked the crowd of young families, senior citizens, small-business owners, and homeschoolers like a seasoned performer, drawing cheers loud enough to be confused for the airplane engines that occasionally filled the background. The appearance, which stepped on President Bush’s final State of the Union address, gave the impression that Huckabee could have done much better here. All he can hope for now is the moral victory — a third-place finish ahead of Rudy Giuliani. In a nearby parallel universe, though, he is probably winning Florida right now.

An entire Republican-heavy section of the state — the northern panhandle — could have been created just so that Mike Huckabee would win Florida. He has also gained endorsements, not just from evangelical pastors, but from real Reagan conservatives throughout the state. House Speaker Marco Rubio is a Roman Catholic, in addition to being the first Cuban to head a state legislative body. His endorsement of Huckabee came as a big surprise to many in Florida’s GOP, and gave Huckabee at least one inroad into the Cuban community that dominate Dade County GOP politics.

Mike Haridopolos is a young state senator who will either run for Congress this year or become the senate president. He helped lead the successful conservative coup against the moderates who controlled the state senate in 2006. Known principally for his knowledge of economic issues — not necessarily for his Baptist faith — Haridopolos announced his endorsement of Huckabee shortly after John McCain’s victory in South Carolina.

“Legitimately, the guy is a good conservative,” said Haridopolos. He admitted that Huckabee had raised taxes in Arkansas, but he said that the governor understands economic issues as well as the other issues that matter most to conservatives. “Whether you like his past or not, he’s been a really straightforward guy. He signed the no-tax pledge. He is strongly pro-gun — more so than anyone left in this race. He is strongly pro-life.”

Yet Huckabee knows he is lagging in Florida. The first clue is that he spent nearly all of Monday — election eve — in faraway Tennessee. Having given up hope of a victory in winner-take-all Florida, he has spent time there and in Alabama and other Super Tuesday states that are rich with evangelical Christians and award their delegates proportionally. Despite a lack of resources, he is planning for a long race, hoping to bring as many delegates as possible to the convention this fall.

He was once the national frontrunner. It was less than a month ago that he won in Iowa, but it feels like it has been a year. What the heck happened to Huck? Haridopolos offers the same frank assessment that many have offered before him. “Had he gone from New Hampshire straight to South Carolina, he’d probably be competing for the victory in Florida,” he said.

Instead, Huckabee went to Michigan, giving Fred Thompson a chance to come to life in South Carolina and erode his base. Huckabee had every reason to think he would perform well in Michigan. His message of economic populism seemed promising among the autoworkers in that state’s East, and he could have also caught fire with the Dutch reformed and Evangelical communities in the West.

It was a strategic error — a bridge too far for a campaign always short of resources. Macomb County, outside of Detroit, gave Huckabee a pathetic 13 percent. He lost to McCain and Romney among voters from union households, despite his witty ad contrasting himself (“the guy you work with”) to Romney (“the guy who laid you off”). Huckabee even lost to Romney (34 to 29 percent) among self-identified Evangelical and Born-Again Christians.

The subsequent loss in South Carolina definitely hurt his credibility with Florida voters. Polls from both Rasmussen and Quinnipiac show him losing six points in the Sunshine State since his close second-place finish there. At the same time, his rate of donations has stayed steady, if it remains comparatively slow. According to the live feed from his website, Huckabee had raised $2 million this month before the Jan. 19 contest in South Carolina. He has raised just under $1 million in the ten days since.

And he still draws those impressive and enthusiastic crowds. “He energizes an critical wing of the party and keeps them interested,” said Haridopolos. “If it isn’t Huckabee — whether it be McCain or Romney — I think he’s positioned himself very well to be vice president.”

An overall victory now seems unlikely. But Huckabee probably will not die today in Florida, either. If he does well in the south and shows up in Minnesota this September with enough delegates, the vice presidency could still be a possibility — which is probably what he was counting on showing up at the airport hangar last night.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.


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