COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The stage had been set for a big win. Bright lights, blue curtains, American flags, rows of network cameras – everything in place for what could have been, with a win, the designation of Mike Huckabee as GOP front runner.
But when Janet Huckabee pulled back the blue curtain and emerged with her husband, there was no win - just a concession.
"A few moments ago, I made a phone call to Senator McCain and I offered my congratulations," Huckabee told a crowd of supporters. "I told him, 'I'd much rather prefer that he had called me tonight, but he was very gracious as we knew he would be. I want to thank him for running a very civil and good and decent campaign to elevate politics. And he is to be congratulated."
It was this strategy of moral high ground that frustrated some members of Huckabee's senior staff, but Huckabee seemed resolute that it was a choice he did not regret: "Even though I'd like the outcome to be just a little different on the top and in second place, I'd rather be where I am and done it with honor than to have won with the dishonor of getting it by attacking somebody else."
Behind him on stage: his supporters, and to look at the face of his 25-year-old daughter and national field director Sarah, the strain was immense. On the trip back to Little Rock: a lighter, if compensatory mood.
The front of the plane (Huckbee and staffers) tried to engage the back of the plane (reporters) in the usual game of orange rolling – but no one had an orange and someone tried to send full throttle a beverage bottle down the aisle without success.
Campaign manager Chip Saltsman and Huckabee went to the back of the plane to joke and chit-chat with reporters. There were empty seats on what had been arranged as a full plane; already some news agencies have pulled their reporters from the Huckabee trail in light of the S.C. loss.
A crowd of loyal supporters greeted Huckabee on the windy tarmac when he arrived in Little Rock. This is the first time Huckabee's been home since the end of last year.
One of the first things the candidate did: he signed a Mike Huckabee bobblehead – the first of 1,500, according to the guy who handed the candidate his toy incarnation.
Already, there were some explanations for the loss. Huckabee to a supporter: "Fred, you know…he took votes from us…Otherwise we would have won by ten points. But, you know, we're still in the game, man."
"Still in the game?" asked the supporter.
"You bet we are," Huckabee replied.