In the course of just a few weeks, Mike Huckabee has capitalized on his Iowa surge and roared to the front of the Republican pack in South Carolina, largely on the strength of social conservatives frustrated with the current crop of candidates.
“We’ve been on the stove simmering for about 11 months,” Huckabee said at a rally in Greenville on Saturday. “Somehow in the last two weeks, the lid blew off and the pot started boiling.”
A month ago, Huckabee was fifth in South Carolina polls. Now, according to a new Mason-Dixon poll conducted in the state, Huckabee comes in at 20 percent, putting him in first place with a narrow lead over former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who comes in at 17 percent.
They are followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 15 percent, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson at 14 percent and Arizona Sen. John McCain at 10 percent.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, himself a die-hard supporter of McCain, predicted the political wave last week, telling reporters in Washington, “what you see nationally with Huckabee is happening in South Carolina.”
Oran Smith of the conservative Palmetto Family Council said Huckabee’s momentum, media attention and strong debate performances may have given once-hesitant voters newfound confidence in Huckabee, who for months was considered a long-shot.
“So many now are focusing on people they think are more in line with their values, but can win. So you’ve got Romney and Thompson vying for that ‘conservative who can win’ label, and all of a sudden here comes Huckabee,” Smith said.
That enthusiasm was on display over the weekend in South Carolina, when supporters and media jammed into a Lizard’s Thicket restaurant on Saturday morning in Columbia to see the former governor of Arkansas.
The cluster of camera crews may have been in town to cover Oprah Winfrey’s upcoming rally for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, but Huckabee was happy to put on a show for them a day early.
Hoisting himself up on a step ladder above the noisy elbow-to-elbow crowd, he gave a rousing speech laced with his trademark wit and intriguing brand of Republican populism (“I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at anybody,” he likes to say).
Huckabee implored the audience to vote in the primary on January 19.
“We need to be able to nail something down after coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said. “We want to put down some deep roots here.”
Huckabee will run his first television ad in South Carolina on Monday, a family-friendly 30-second spot called “A Better America.”
Rep. Bob Inglis, who represents the Greenville-Spartanburg area, jumped off the fence to endorse Huckabee last month. Inglis said his candidate “has the authenticity and transparency” to attract new voters.
“I see he and Obama as very similar in what they’re trying to do,” Inglis said, referring to the Illinois senator’s willingness to break with party orthodoxy on certain issues.
“I think that Huckabee has got to find a way say things that need to be said, that we’re not going to scare them into voting for us, we’re not going to demonize Democrats, we’re not going to hate immigrants,” Inglis said. “We’re going to be rooted in principle and focused on the future, and that’s what I think he’s found.”
As Huckabee begins to cut into his opponents’ support among evangelical Christians, who account for about half of GOP primary voters in South Carolina according to a recent AP poll, the arrows are beginning to come out.
The Romney and Thompson campaigns, both vying for support among social conservatives, have issued a salvo of press releases in recent weeks attacking Huckabee’s record on taxes and immigration.
On the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, while Huckabee was giving a sermon at a Baptist church near Greenville on a Sunday morning, the Thompson camp blasted out three straight e-mail attacks on Huckabee in the course of about 20 minutes.
He has also faced some anonymous dirty tricks: On Sunday, mysterious fliers accusing Huckabee of “lying” about his role in the Wayne Dumond parole controversy were left on car windshields outside of his Greenville campaign stop.
The flier says it is sponsored by a group called “Lynchburg Christian Students for the Truth,” but a CNN investigation has been unable to confirm the existence of any group that goes by that name.
Huckabee also lacks the deep pockets of nearly all his GOP rivals, particularly Romney. His grassroots support in South Carolina, while loyal and enthusiastic, lacks the organization and funding of Romney’s ground game here.
However, with the holiday season in full swing, Huckabee could also be peaking at the right time.
“Christmas is coming up, there’s going to be some bowl games, and politics will be on the backburner except for in the mail,” said South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson. “As soon as Santa Claus comes down the chimney and leaves, here come the candidates.”
If Huckabee heads into late December unscathed, with the kind of support he has right now, he could become the man to beat come early January.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, is gathering strong support from Christian conservatives, and has surged past three of his better-known presidential rivals and is now challenging former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the lead in the Iowa Republican caucuses, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll.
Huckabee support is up 200% since late July, eclipsing former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain(Ariz.). Moreover, his support in Iowa appears stronger and more enthusiastic than that of his rivals.
The poll found that overall, 28 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers support Romney, while 24 percent support Huckabee. Thompson ran third in the poll at 15 percent, with Giuliani at about the same level, with 13 percent. McCain, whose Iowa campaign appeared to derail earlier this year over his stance on immigration, had 6 percent and was tied with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who rose from 2 percent in July.
Huckabee’s gains were concentrated among the party’s conservative core, which translated into a 28-percentage-point bounce in support, mainly from Protestants, and a 19-point rise among conservatives. Huckabee also benefited from the decision of Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and others to quit the race. Brownback and Huckabee had been competing for many of the same religious and conservative voters. Moreover, Huckabee’s gain in this poll does not come at the expense of those still running, all of whom are faring about the same as they were in July.
But almost half of Huckabee’s supporters (48 percent) said they would definitely vote for him in January and only a quarter said there was a good chance that they would change their minds before the caucuses. In contrast, just 29 percent of Romney’s backers said they would definitely vote for him, while 42 percent said there was a good chance that they could vote for someone else.
The enthusiasm among Huckabee supporters is interesting, particularly in a year in which Republicans have been considerably dissatisfied with a field of mediocre candidates. Half of those who now back the former Arkansas governor said they are very enthusiastic about him, compared with 28 percent of Romney’s backers.
It is also primarily social issues that galvanize Huckabee’s backers.
More than four in 10 Huckabee voters call abortion or broader moral or values issues the race’s top one or two concerns. That is nearly double the number of Romney supporters to highlight these issues. Overall, three-quarters of likely GOP voters think that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, and among the 24 percent who want the procedure to be unlawful in every instance, 36 percent support Huckabee and 22 percent Romney.
But, many issues drive likely GOP caucus-goers.
A quarter of those surveyed said immigration is their biggest or second-biggest concern when considering whom to back on Jan. 3. The same percentage, 24 percent, highlighted the war in Iraq, and nearly as many, 21 percent, singled out terrorism and national security.
Ten percent or more cited five other issues: the economy, health care, abortion, taxes, and morals and family values. Overall, eight issues ranked in the double digits, making the discussion in the Republican contest potentially more wide-ranging than that on the Democratic side. Among likely Democratic caucus-goers, only three issues reach 10 percent, and two — Iraq and health care — dominate voters’ concerns.
On immigration, Romney has an edge: 27 percent said the former Massachusetts governor is best on the issue, while Huckabee received 13 percent. No candidate is clearly preferred on the other top issue, Iraq, with Giuliani, McCain and Romney each considered the best by about two in 10. Giuliani doubles up the competition, however, on handling the terrorism fight.
Romney tops the field as the candidate most trusted to handle the economy and the federal budget deficit. He and Huckabee are preferred by about equal percentages on social issues, such as abortion and same-sex civil unions.
About six in 10 likely caucus-goers said they have been called by one of the campaigns. Twenty-nine percent have attended a campaign event, up six percentage points from July, but far less than the percentage of Democrats who have attended an event (52 percent). A third of GOP voters have visited one of the candidates’ Web sites and 29 percent have received e-mail. About one in five has spoken with or shaken hands with one or more of the GOP candidates. Fifteen percent have contributed money.
Romney has an advantage on the question of who has the “best experience to be president,” after a 10-point increase from July, when he was about even with Giuliani and McCain. Romney had held a marginally significant edge on “best understands problems of people like you,” but while he has stayed at 21 percent on this question, Huckabee has soared from 10 percent to 25 percent.
In July, Romney had the lead on “most honest and trustworthy” at 21 percent. He has risen to 25 percent, but Huckabee jumped from 10 percent to 26 percent.
On top of all this, there’s another intangible at work here I believe.
Huckabee seems really intelligent and genuine to me.
I had a chance to watch Huckabee during a recent television interview and I was quite impressed. His answers were well thought out and lucid, he conveyed his ideas and positions with honesty and candor, and he seemed prepared to lead. Unlike Romney, Giuliani, and the others, Huckabee was clear on his positions, never wavering, and never back pedaling.
Moreover, he wasn’t afraid to hide his Chritianity and clearly explained how he would not project his beliefs on others or use it as a political leveraging tool.
I like that.
If Republicans are smart, they’ll keep one eye on this guy. He has Romney’s charm, Giuliani’s grit, McCain’s humor, and Paul’s libertarian ideals, without out all the extra nuttiness and baggage. I will be interesting to see just how far he can go.