Huckabee's South Carolina Strategy

Presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, left, and his wife Janet Huckabee, address supporters during a campaign stop at the Spartanburg Gun Club in Pacolet, S.C., Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007. Huckabee is rising from a little-known Arkansas governor to a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination and so, too, are the number of inquiries he's facing over his ethical lapses, tax increases and unwavering support for a rapist, later convicted of killing a Missouri woman. (AP Photo/ Patrick Collard) AP

By The Politico's David Mark

Rep. Bob Inglis is a staunch social conservative who opposes gay marriage and abortion and believes the concept of intelligent design should be taught in public schools along with evolution.

But that's not what's driving his support for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in South Carolina's Jan. 19 primary - giving a glimpse into Huckabee's unorthodox strategy for translating his Iowa momentum into success in Dixie.

Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, said that despite being wooed by all the leading GOP presidential candidates, he went with Huckabee because of his emphasis on more consumer-friendly issues like health care, federal arts funding, climate change and other topics that would appeal to broad group of voters, not just traditional social and Christian conservatives.

"It's probably not what people would have expected out of a Baptist preacher from Arkansas," Inglis said in an interview. "He's a conservative who's focused on the future, and rooted in principle and experience. It's the reason people are taking a look."

As Huckabee gains traction in Iowa ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses - within striking distance of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, or even statistically tied, according to some polls - he must find a place to translate a strong Iowa finish into continued momentum. South Carolina, rife with movement conservatives who would be comfortable with Huckabee's Arkansas twang, appears to be his richest target.

But Huckabee is not courting conservatives here with the "God, guns and Confederate flag" mantra that has been used in past South Carolina campaigns. Instead, he is offering a calibrated message meant to draw support from a wide range of conservatives, not just the social variety.

Huckabee's focus on competency and inclusion may be counterintuitive in a state that has seen bruising battles over candidates' conservative credentials in the past. But this is a different South Carolina - one to which tens of thousands of retirees, middle managers and young couples, primarily from the Northeast and Midwest, have flocked to in recent years.

As Huckabee toured the Palmetto State during a recent two-day campaign trip, he frequently touted 10 and a half years of can-do gubernatorial service, focusing as much on bread-and-butter accomplishments as on hot-button national issues like immigration and the war on terror.

"I certainly think social issues matter, because they go to the core of our convictions and principles. But I don't think that's all there is," Huckabee said after preaching Sunday morning at First Baptist Church in Fountain Inn, S.C., a small upstate community. "People look at a history of effective government. People want somebody who actually has a record of being able to accomplish something - not just talk about it, but do it."

Huckabee went on to cite his efforts balancing budgets and cutting taxes in Arkansas, and using the Internet more efficiently to run state government, so residents could get car tags online in "four minutes, rather than going all over town." Voters "want government to be functional. They see it now as dysfunctional, and very divided."

As the South Carolina primary rapidly approaches Huckabee is trying to ensure his campaign doesn't end with a strong showing in Iowa; if indeed he has a strong showing. In a sign of how he's trying to broaden the reach of his campaign, Huckabee hasn't been in Iowa since Nov. 8 and won't be in the state until Dec. 3 at the earliest.

He is further back in the pack in New Hampshire, which comes next on Jan 8, and has shown little interest in Michigan's Jan. 15 primary. So South Carolina could serve as a crucial base of support when the campaign heads south.

Though polling in South Carolina has been sporadic, recent surveys suggest Huckabee has considerable distance to make up in order to have a chance at winning. A Nov. 21 Rasmussen Reports tracking poll found that 12 percent of likely primary voters in South Carolina would back Huckabee. That put him well behind Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson at 21 percent, and slightly behind former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had 13 percent.

And the Real Clear Politics average of polls taken Oct. 7 through Nov. 20 found Huckabee further back in the pack, with 8.5 percent support in South Carolina. According to those averages Romney was slightly ahead, with 21.8 percent to Giuliani's 19.8 percent, while Thompson had 16.8 percent and Arizona Sen. John McCain with 11.3 percent.

Romney's steady rise in South Carolina can be attributed to his consistent emphasis on social issues. And Huckabee certainly isn't neglecting this crucial element of the South Carolina primary electorate.

In trying to build support around South Carolina, Huckabee has put together a team of socially conservative state legislators and GOP activists. His leadership team includes two state senators and four state representatives, as well as a former chairman of the state Republican Party. He's won an endorsement from Iris Campbell, the wife of the state's popular former governor, Carroll Campbell. And Mike Campbell, the son of the late governor and a former candidate for lieutenant governor, is Huckabee's state chairman.

Inglis, who commands strong support from social conservatives in his upstate congressional district, also is seen as an important endorsement here, though he came to Huckabee only after Inglis' longtime friend, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, left the race.

Huckabee's schedule during his weekend swing through South Carolina suggested the importance he places on wooing social conservatives. On Sunday morning he preached two Sunday sermons at Baptist churches in Irmo, in the central part of the state, and Fountain Inn, further upstate. Huckabee then touted his support for gun rights - and his own skeet shooting skills - in between greeting voters at the Spartanburg Gun Club.

Congregants at Fountain Inn's First Baptist are just the sort of South Carolinians Huckabee would need to win. Several said they would keep an open mind about him.

"I wanted to see how his faith relates to his politics," said Ashley Riddle, 47, a regular First Baptist attendee and self-described political junkie. "He's on my short list."

Mark Stewart, a government teacher at Greenville Technical Charter High School, said he did not know much about Huckabee before hearing him preach at his church Sunday. Now he's giving Huckabee serious consideration, including a perusal of his campaign website after church on Sunday.

Higher profile and better funded candidates like Romney, Giuliani, Thompson and McCain "are in the limelight a lot, but they don't do much for me," Stewart said. As for Huckabee, "I don't have much doubt in my mind that he's a Christian and would enact policies that reflect that."

But others, like Bill Smith, 78, said other issues would determine his vote. Smith worked in a Goodyear tire plant in his native Ohio for a quarter century before moving to South Carolina to be near his daughter, in Simpsonville.

At a meet-and-greet for Huckabee at the home of conservative state Sen. David Thomas in Fountain Inn, Smith evidenced the demographic changes that are driving a broader conservative agenda in South Carolina. He said free trade pacts had driven jobs overseas from his former workplace and many others like it, and he would be assessing candidates partly on that basis.

That's a frequent refrain in upstate South Carolina, where the textile industry has been hit hard byforeign competition. That's not to say voters like Smith don't care about Huckabee's approach to social issues. "What it really comes down to for me is whether they seem like an honest, decent person I can trust," he said.

That's what Huckabee is trying to convince voters of as he adds more retail campaign stops to his South Carolina schedule over the next month and a half.
  • David Miller

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