GOP Dark Horse Feels His Oats

Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at the Family Research Council's Washington Values Voter Summit, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007, in Washington.(AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP/Nick Wass
This story was written by political reporter David Miller.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee would seem to be a natural to attract the support of social conservatives in the Republican presidential contest.

But the Baptist minister who wows audiences with a mix of down-home folksiness and traditional values has spent most of the year struggling to gain a foothold in the race for the GOP nomination.

Lately, however, there are signs that Huckabee may be catching on.

In the latest Iowa poll by the American Research Group, Huckabee is within striking distance of Mitt Romney, whom he trails 27 percent to 19 percent. Other polls in Iowa, host of the first statewide nominating contests on Jan. 3, also show Huckabee gaining ground.

And Huckabee was the star of a recent gathering of conservative Christian voters in Washington, where a majority of those in attendance said he was their preferred candidate for president - outpacing Romney 5-to-1. Internet ballots put Romney ahead of Huckabee in the overall count, but only by 30 votes.

But with Huckabee's apparent rise come many questions. In terms of dollars raised, he is near the bottom of the GOP field. He has no national finance director. In national polls and statewide polls other than Iowa, his support is often less than the margin of error. Rank-and-file social conservatives may like him, but the leaders of that movement are more pessimistic. And among fiscal conservatives, he is viewed with suspicion.

Yet it's hard to deny Huckabee is making headway. Perhaps the surest sign of that is that Romney has started to criticize him. In a recent interview with Iowa Public Television, the former Massachusetts governor chided Huckabee for wanting to give, he said, "special tuition breaks to the children of illegal immigrants."

But GOP strategist Tony Fabrizio says that while Huckabee is gaining traction, it's not clear that he's really a threat to Romney's first-place status in Iowa.

"Romney has an incredible organization and it may be by sheer force of weight that he hangs on," Fabrizio said. "Sometimes you can't substitute money for passion and enthusiasm. Huckabee has that, but Romney's organization is so embedded and so deep it might be tough for Huckabee to unseat him."

Second place in Iowa, however, might not be so bad. A strong finish there could give him a boost headed into primaries in New Hampshire and, in particular, South Carolina, site of the first southern contest on Jan. 19.

Getting there will not be easy. There is no guarantee that Huckabee's current rise will continue through the final stages of the Iowa campaign, during which his weak fundraising - he pulled in only $1 million between July and September of this year - could render him unable to keep up with the large spending expected of Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson.

Political Players: Interviews Huckabee

Huckabee insists he can raise and spend the money required for a strong showing - the campaign recently reported raising $1 million online in October alone.

"The best way to say it is a lot of those campaigns have spent an enormous amount of money hiring a lot more people than we have," Huckabee told reporters in an Oct. 22 conference call. "We have been frugal, and we make no apologies for that. We've used it very wisely and thoughtfully. We continue to add people to our staff. Other people have had to make layoffs and cut staff, and we haven't had to do that."

On paper, Huckabee's fundraising problems might be surprising. He won two elections in Arkansas, a historically Democratic state. He has been reliably conservative on nearly every issue, yet his language strikes a populist tone, making him sound like the "compassionate conservative" President Bush campaigned as in 2000. He even has a compelling personal story, having lost well over 100 lbs. during his time as governor and becoming an advocate for preventative health care.