Campaigning in Texas ahead of Tuesday’s primary, Mike Huckabee has taken to wrapping himself in the Lone Star State’s most fabled tale of grit: the brave but ill-fated defense of the Alamo.
Addressing a rally here, a straight shot up Interstate 35 from San Antonio’s shrine, Huckabee even paraphrased William Barret Travis’s famous letter from the besieged garrison, requesting aid but promising to battle unto the death like a good soldier.
As it turns out, though, Huckabee isn’t planning to play the noble soldier who bows to the victor.
“You can beat me but you can’t make me quit,” he said, talking to reporters following a speech before hundreds of locals and Baylor University students.
So much for politics imitating war.
Even if McCain were to win each of the combined 256 delegates up for grabs in Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont and here on Tuesday, he’d still fall short by some estimates of the 1,191 pledged delegates needed to clinch the nomination. And 1,191, Huckabee reiterated Thursday, is “the magic number.”
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“That’s when you have to recognize somebody else has secured the nomination,” he said. “That hasn’t happened yet.”
So with fewer delegates still available than what he would need to reach 1,191, Huckabee intends to fight on.
“We may end up suspending for a while or not campaigning quite as actively, but we’re not quitting,” campaign strategist Ed Rollins promised after Huckabee’s press conference.
The plan now, he said, is to stay in through Mississippi or even Pennsylvania. Mississippi rewards 39 delegates on March 11 and Pennsylvania 74 on April 22.
Absent a major shift, McCain would likely secure the nomination by one of those two contests.
Still, it appears likely that Huckabee will take at least a few of Texas’s 137 delegates up for grabs Tuesday.
For one thing, he’ll benefit from the GOP’s rules governing distribution. In Texas, there are 96 delegates allocated across the state’s 32 congressional districts. If past trends from Southern states hold up, Huckabee will win a handful of the more rural and conservative seats.
Further, with Texan Ron Paul also on the ballot, Huckabee may be able to keep McCain below 50 percent in some districts. In that event, Huckabee, assuming he’s in second place, would take one of the three delegates allocated to that district.
A low-turnout affair would work to Huckabee’s benefit. Texas’s Republican base is staunchly conservative, and those hardy enough to vote in a contest that is widely viewed as a foregone conclusion will likely be even further to the right.
McCain, of course, is now largely focused on the upcoming general election. He has stumped across the state and will do so through Tuesday, but he’s husbanding his resources and has not bought any airtime in the state’s 20 markets. By contrast, Huckabee is on TV now in the Dallas and Houston markets, though his advisers declined to detail the extent of the buy in the two pricey markets.
Despite the long odds, the ardor of Huckabee’s supporters hasn’t dimmed. The hotel ballroom where he spoke here was blocked by a fire official. About 600 people were in the room and another 500 were kept outside. But instead of leaving, they stood in a long hallway and listened to the candidate’s speech through loudspeakers. Friday, he drew over 2,000 in College Station, home of Texas A&M University.
As they have been in other states, Huckabee’s backers comprise evangeicals, proponents of the so-called “FairTax” and youngsters.
And, just as Huckabee and his campaign are counting on, many appeared either to not know or not care that their favorite candidate has already been mathematically eliminated.
“I’m a little worried,” conceded Jon Green, a Baylor student from Bridgeport, Texas. “But I think if everybody goes out and votes he’s got a fighting chance.”
Cynthia Howard of Waco went even further.
“I’ve got no worries" that Huckabee can’t win, she said. “Absolutely not.”
Larry Forrest, also of Waco, seemed to capture the pragmatic but loyal view of Huckabee’s fans here.
“Well, even if he don’t get it I’m gonna vote right,” Forrest said.
Perhaps most troubling for McCain, each said they would either not vote for him in the fall or would do so only very grudgingly.
Huckabee’s strengths seem to underscore McCain’s weaknesses. McCain’s penchant for defying his own party has led some Republicans here to believe that he even opposes them on issues where he hews to the conservative line.
Howard, who called “the sanctity of life” her most important issue, said she wouldn’t get behind McCain because “it’s just a moral thing.”
Reminded that McCain is pro-life, she said, “Yeah, yeah,” unconvincingly.
“But I don’t know – I have to pray about it. He flip-flops back and forth.”
McCain has opposed abortion rights throughout his 25 years in Congress.
Huckabee’s message to Texas voters is heavy on emotion and process, similar to the pitch he made to Iowa Republicans. Issues are mentioned but largely beside the point compared to his organic support from co-religionists and personality-based appeal.
In Iowa, he played on class sympathies and the view held by many activists there that the retail-heavy caucuses allow anybody to compete. And he tossed in an implicit warning about what would happen to their treasured process if they validated the heavy spending of Mitt Romney.
“If we’re able to pull this off, do you think there will ever be a future candidate that will come and just throw some money at you and say, ‘Hey, you ought to vote for me’?” Huckabee asked at a rally in Sioux City last December.
By supporting me, Huckabee effectively told Iowans, you’re keeping yourselves relevant.
Now Huckabee is employing a similar theme, only substituting the healthy ego and fierce independence of Texans for Iowa’s pride in their caucuses, and McCain’s success in those blue states viewed with suspicion by Southerners for Romney’s big bucks. His approach here is to motivate voters through naked appeals to regional identity and warnings of outside influence, and by stoking disdain for the press.
“My expectation is that people in Texas don’t want folks in New York and New Jersey and California telling them how it’s gonna be,” Huckabee told supporters, using a noticeably thicker drawl than when he usually speaks.
“They might just turn around and say, ‘let’s watch and see how that turns out,’” he added, drawing hoots and hollers from the crowd.
And, just as in Iowa, Huckabee told his fans it was in their own self-interest to support him.
“Texans ought to have a choice, Texans ought to have a voice,” he said to the crowd. “And the only way you have a choice and a voice is to vote and to do something that maybe isn’t expected of you to do.”
At his press conference he was even more explicit.
“The only way to validate the importance of Texas is for me to win it,” he said flatly. “If that happens, people won’t take it for granted.”
And, just for good measure, he’s also now tossed i a little media-bashing of the sort sure to draw applause in a place like Waco.
“Let’s win Texas and let’s absolutely just shock the daylights out of [television newscasters] and make them stand there for about two hours just blubbering all over themselves trying to figure out…” he declared, drowned out by applause.