The former Arkansas governor also plans to send out his first mailing to voters in Iowa and is ramping up the numbers of paid staffers in a campaign that until recently relied almost exclusively on volunteers.
While declining to say exactly how much the campaign would spend on the ad buys in the three early-contest states, national campaign manager Chip Saltsman put the figure at around “at least” several hundred thousand dollars.
It’s the cost of moving from long shot to front-runner. Yet despite a double-digit lead in Iowa and growing strength in South Carolina, Huckabee acknowledges skepticism still runs deep over whether he can translate a likely win in Iowa to victories here in the Granite State and in other critical early contests beyond.
“First it was, well nice guy but he doesn’t have a chance of winning,” Huckabee said in a brief interview in his campaign van between stops at a local eatery and a speech at the high school. “Nice guy, he doesn’t have enough money. Nice guy, doesn’t have enough organization. Then it got to be in the place of, well he’s going to do OK in Iowa but that’s as far as it can go. He’ll be a one night stand.”
Huckabee says voters are responding to his ideas. “Regardless of what happens, we’ve proven and I’ve said it since January, the message matters more than the money,” Huckabee said.
Perhaps, but a top new campaign strategist isn’t taking any chances.
“We need to basically put together the mechanisms that not only [last] for Iowa and New Hampshire but [go] all the way to the White House,” said veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who officially began Friday as the national campaign chairman.
It was only last week that Huckabee first aired ads on television in New Hampshire and South Carolina. His first ad in Iowa only aired a week before Thanksgiving, and he’s spent approximately $800,000 on advertising there.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in comparison, went up on television in February and has spent $7 million on advertising in Iowa alone.
Yet in a matter of weeks Huckabee has achieved what Romney could not in nearly a year.
Not only does Huckabee lead in Iowa, but polls show he is now ahead in the crucial state of South Carolina and contesting Rudy Giuliani both in Florida and nationally.
Winning the nomination remains an ambition with immense obstacles to overcome. He will only have five days to carry a possible victory from Iowa to New Hampshire. That leaves little time to capitalize on momentum but equally, little time to undercut it. But no obstacle haunts Huckabee more than his meager staff resources.
So Huckabee, due to urgent necessity, is now hiring. He added roughly 10 campaign staffers in the last three weeks. Yet his campaign still numbers at 42 paid staffers nationwide – only about half of what Romney has in Iowa alone.
At a recent campaign event, after one of Huckabee’s aides acknowledged the small size of the staff, he quickly added, “But we have a ton of volunteers. And they aren’t paid $1,000 a head.” It was a veiled swipe at Romney’s use of paid “super-volunteers.”
“Christ,” the Huckabee aide quipped. “That’s a mid level staffer for us.”
The humor masks a serious problem. He only has about 15 staffers in Iowa, six in New Hampshire, and six in South Carolina. And he still has no staff in Michigan or Florida, both of which have critical GOP contests in January.
Over the next two weeks, Rollins intends to beef up staffing on the ground in key states as well as canvass Republican circes to hire foreign, domestic, and national security experts.
To date, the campaign has only two policy advisors – California attorney Janis Cherry, and J. French Hill, a veteran Republican bureaucrat from the Reagan era – as well as a young assistant. Unlike all other top-tier campaigns, Huckabee has yet to organize his staff into a plane and ground team, which allows a candidate to be apprised of the days’ events while campaigning.
The shoestring operation explains why, in part, Huckabee was unaware when Politico asked earlier this month about a recent intelligence report on Iran’s nuclear program, though it topped the news for more than a day.
“If I was running his campaign at that point in time, the moment something like that breaks you have someone traveling with him briefed,” Rollins said. “In the course of the day you have an hourly contact with your candidate.”
Now Rollins does run the campaign. Staffing up is imperative, he said, but “I think any resources we have at this point in time we will put him on television.”
Huckabee’s campaign may not be able to run a single internal poll before the Iowa caucuses, essentially relying on the media to know where they stand. It has been the media attention in recent weeks that has allowed Huckabee to spend relatively little but maintain a significant national presence.
And the newfound success is beginning to pay off. Last month Huckabee raised $2 million online, more than every month prior combined.
It was this past Saturday that the campaign faced a logistical nightmare. It was caught in northern New Hampshire in the early evening, the nearest commercial airports at least two hours away. The next morning a nor’easter was to hit New England.
Huckabee charted a private plane and flew out Saturday night, beat the storm, and made it to California by Sunday evening for a large fundraiser.
One month ago, said Saltsman, “it would have been almost impossible for us to do that.”