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Huckabee Hopeful Despite Tough Odds

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Mike Huckabee isn’t ready to give up his quest for the White House, and voters keep giving him reasons to stay in the race.

Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, was the winner of weekend votes in Kansas and Louisiana, and finished in a very close second place to Sen. John McCain in Washington state — and may challenge those results. “People across America are gravitating towards our campaign and realizing that there is still a choice,” Huckabee said Sunday.

The results, the first since Mitt Romney ended his campaign and solidified McCain’s front-runner status, show that a significant portion of Republican primary voters still don’t like the idea of the maverick Arizona senator as their nominee. Others are taken with Huckabee’s brand of evangelical populism — an especially awkward fit for the the Wall Street establishment that is drawn to the Republican Party for its fiscal conservatism.

The victories — following Huckabee’s strong showing across the South on Super Tuesday — aren’t enough to improve the delegate math, which most analysts agree makes it impossible for him to become the Republican nominee. But Huckabee refuses to be deterred. “I didn’t major in math,” he told several thousand conservative activists on Saturday. “I majored in miracles and I still believe in those.”

I didn’t major in math. I majored in miracles and I still believe in those.

These comments, delivered at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Washington, were greeted with cheers and a sea of signs that declared, "I Like Mike," from a crowd that had largely backed Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. A visit from McCain failed to win them over, but Huckabee — with perfect pitch, a showman’s elan, and a keen sense of humor — got the kinds of laughs and applause that any performer dreams of.

That this core element of the Republican base continues to reject McCain threatens to become a problem for the Republican Party and its chances in November. But it has already become a source of strength for Huckabee, who stressed his own conservative principles — including staunch opposition to abortion rights and a tax plan that calls for the destruction of the Internal Revenue Service. Despite those conservative favorites, his streak of Republicanism is anything but conventional. Mainstream conservatives worry that he is not a fiscal conservative, and point to his record of tax increases during his 10 ½ years as governor.

Huckabee sought to explain his politics on Saturday. “My conservatism is rooted in my understanding of the Scriptures,” he told the CPAC crowd. Huckabee went on to describe his childhood in Hope, Ark., “a generation away from the abject poverty of the deep South,” and a place where Republicans were scarce. “There were three basic heroes in our household,” Huckabee said. “Jesus, Elvis and F.D.R.”

With Huckabee and his unusual pedigree as the only viable option, party leaders have begun to ask Republicans to rally around McCain and begin to focus on defeating the Democrats. In an interview with Fox News Sunday, President George W. Bush, who has resisted showing any favoritism among the Republicans hoping to succeed him, called McCain a “true conservative.”

But many conservatives mistrust McCain. They point to his early opposition to Bush’s tax cuts, his sponsorship of campaign finance reform and, perhaps most distressing, his plan for immigration reform, which they say would grant amnesty to millions who entered the country illegally. McCain’s sometimes abrasive demeanor hasn’t made it any easier to rally to his side.

A new nationwide poll by Newsweek, conducted after Romney withdrew, showed McCain strengthening his lead, with 51 percent of the vote. But Huckabee drew 32 percent — an unusual show of defiance for a party that traditionally rallies around its nominee.

“The Republican Party has never had so many options,” said Sharon Blades, a Florida voter who saw Huckabee speak at CPAC over the weekend. “Usually it’s set up for you.”

Blades is now reluctantly supporting McCain, after voting for Romney in her state’s primary. She liked that Romney was a strong fiscal conservative, and says Huckabee’s record in Arkansas makes her nervous. But his charms made an impression. “He’s more warm and fuzzy,” she said. “He’s very good on his feet.” Oh, and he likes to play bass guitar.

Huckabee said he was surprised by his weekend victories, and was looking forward to Tuesday’s “Potomac Primary.” “I think we have a shot at Virginia,” Huckabee said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press." “I think we have a shot at Maryland… I think we have a shot at everywhere we go.’’

Virginia, with 63 delegates at stake, will be the most important — and most interesting — of the contests. McCain leads Huckabee, 55 percent to 27 percent, according to a poll conducted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other Virginia newspapers that was released Sunday. Ron Paul, the anti-war libertarian, was in third, with 5 percent.

The state is home to many military bases and defense contractors, and GOP primary voters said national security was the most important issue to them. McCain, a decorated war hero who spent five and a half years as a POW in Vietnam, is expected to do well among them.

But McCain lost Virginia to Bush in 2000, after he criticized Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, prominent leaders of the religious right based in the state. Another factor may be the state’s open primary rules, which could prompt some moderate and Independent voters – among McCain’s strongest supporters in other states — to vote in the Democratic primary if they believe the Republican contest is already decided.

The Virginia poll showed McCain with broad support across the Republican Party in Virginia — even leading Huckabee among evangelical Christians, 43 percent to 41 percent. But Huckabee led among people who called themselves conservatives, with 41 percent saying they would vote for him.

With such support — drawn both from those who don’t like McCain and from his own base of fans — and primaries still to be held in half the states, Huckabee insists that voters deserve more than a coronation.

Romney’s campaign frequently drew sparks with several of his Republican opponents. But Huckabee and McCain have remained friendly and some political analysts see Huckabee’s decision to stay in the race as a bid to become McCain’s running mate. McCain has downplayed the importance of the kind of geographic diversity such a ticket would provide, and Huckabee said there are many people that McCain would likely choose above him.

But Huckabee hasn’t completely ruled it out. "Nobody ever wants the vice president’s job,” he said last week on NBC’s "Today Show." “Nobody ever turns it down."

Huckabee’s continued presence in the race could also position him to become the standard-bearer for a new generation of evangelicals…

Huckabee’s continued presence in the race could also position him to become the standard-bearer for a new generation of evangelicals, dissatisfied with a group of established leaders of the religious right who focus on fighting abortion and gay marriage, with little attention to issues like economic justice and the environment. “Evangelicalism itself is becoming more diverse,” said John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and a political science professor at the University of Akron.

But as the Baptist preacher vows to keep fighting, he has also begun to look ahead to the general election. He argues that his experience, bucking the Democratic power in Arkansas, makes him best suited to be the Republican candidate. “I’m the only person who’s run against the Clinton machine and beat it four times,” Huckabee said.

Star Parker, a conservative activist and author, who introduced Huckabee at CPAC on Saturday, said, “He knows that he’s an underdog.” But, she added, "This race is not to the swift or the strong, but he who endures."

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