Perfect Stranger

If you’re trying to watch your waistline, Tommy’s Ham House is probably the last place you ought to go for breakfast. But there was Mike Huckabee last week, working his way around the Greenville, S.C., restaurant, shaking hands, making small talk and doing his best to keep his distance from all those plates piled with steaming smoked ham steaks, buttery grits and syrup-soaked pancakes. Huckabee, the once rotund minister and former Arkansas governor who dropped 100 pounds and now preaches about the virtues of diet and exercise, had the pained look of a man suffering a momentary crisis of faith. “Ohh, I wish I could have a bite of that,” the long-shot presidential candidate told one diner, his eyes aching for a two-pound omelet.

Huckabee restrained himself and turned to the real reason for his visit: winning over the 100 or so GOP voters who’d shown up that morning to hear his presidential pitch. He didn’t disappoint. Huckabee’s speech hit every major theme on the Christian conservative wish list. He explained he’s unshakably pro-life, opposes same-sex marriage and supports the troop surge in Iraq. He promised to protect gun rights and vowed to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, the agency Republicans love to hate most. “I want April 15 to be just another beautiful spring day,” Huckabee declared. “Amen!” one man called out.

On paper and in person, Mike Huckabee seems like the perfect presidential candidate for Republicans in search of a successor to George W. Bush. Conservatives haven’t hidden their dissatisfaction with other GOP candidates. Rudy Giuliani—pro-choice, hard to pin down on gay rights and married three times—has struggled to convince the base he’s one of them. Mitt Romney has yet to settle questions about his shifting views on abortion and has had trouble winning over evangelicals because he is a Mormon. John McCain is knocked for his moderate stand on immigration and is still taking lumps for his campaign-reform laws. Even Fred Thompson, whom some in the party hold out as a Reaganesque savior, is having trouble explaining his past abortion views.

No one doubts Huckabee’s conservative credentials. He’s got a compelling up-from-poverty story. Born in Hope, Ark., like Bill Clinton, Huckabee was the first in his family to graduate from high school and attend college. His father was a fireman who moonlighted as a car mechanic. He tells crowds the only soap in the house while he was growing up was Lava, the heavy-duty grease remover made with pumice. “I was in college before I knew it didn’t have to hurt when you took a shower,” he jokes. As chairman of the Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention and later as the state’s governor, Huckabee had a reputation for being a nice guy with a quick wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor—a serious Christian conservative who didn’t take himself too seriously. He even plays bass in a rock band, Capitol Offense. His best gig: as governor, he opened for a sold-out Willie Nelson show.

But what worked in Arkansas hasn’t helped him on the trail. Despite his positions, Huckabee has struggled to gain attention. His debate performances have been praised, but he barely registers in polls. It’s a problem that vexes his staff: He’s got the message. He’s got the story. He’s got the charisma. So why can’t Mike Huckabee get any respect? The short, cruel answer is that many people who should be his most enthusiastic supporters don’t think he could win if he were pitted in a nasty race against the one Democrat conservatives loathe most. “We like Mike a lot,” says Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. “But nobody thinks he can beat Hillary, and a fear of another Clinton White House outweighs almost everything.”

In other words, Huckabee is too nice to be president. Land says it might be a different story if Huckabee were raking in contributions, but that isn’t happening. He’s raised just over $1 million for his race, and ended June with less than $500,000 in the bank. In contrast, Rudy Giuliani had $18 million on hand as of June 30. Huckabee is stuck in a familiar political trap: is he having trouble raising money because no one thinks he can win, or does no one think he can win because he’s having trouble raising money? Either way, it’s been enough to keep him down in a year when Republicans are already jittery about the White House. “In any other year, Mike Huckabee might have been well positioned,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “But the Republicans realize they are behind the eight ball for ’08, and they are less willing to take chances.”

Huckabee may wish he had more support from the Republican establishment, but he isn’t doing much to win over party leaders. In speeches, he jabs at the GOP for having lost touch with ordinary people. “Republicans haven’t gotten it right all the time,” he says. “Democrats haven’t gotten it wrong all the time. You’re not going to hear a lot of Republicans say that.” That line is not a big applause-getter at RNC HQ. And corporate donors aren’t fond of this riff, either: “I am like a lot of folks who are tired of thinking the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street,” he said last week. “The Republican Party belongs to the people on Main Street.” But Huckabee doesn’t seem to care if he’s biting the hand that refuses to feed him. “I am not a Republican clone,” he tells NEWSWEEK. “I’m not right out of the laboratory of the RNC. It’s probably the reason I am not the favorite of a lot of establishment Republicans.”

If Huckabee privately despairs over his chances of winning the nomination, it doesn’t show. He points to his recent second-place showing in the Iowa straw poll, where he finished behind Romney. Huckabee spent less than $100,000—Romney is said to have put up $2 million. Huckabee won some voters with his message and others with his music. He jammed with an Elvis impersonator. More than 100 people stood in the blazing 105-degree heat taking it all in.

The fact that Giuliani, McCain and Thompson weren’t even on the ballot in Iowa doesn’t dampen Huckabee’s enthusiasm. Since the straw poll, he says his campaign has attracted more than 1,000 new donors. And he can legitimately claim he has doubled his support in the polls—albeit from 2 to 4 percent. “There has been a seismic shift,” Huckabee insisted with excitement last week. “People are giving us a second look. They like our message.” There may be something to what he says. Last weekend in New Hampshire, 200 people showed up to see Huckabee speak—a Giuliani-size crowd, and more than triple what he’s used to. It’s enough to get a guy dreaming about playing the East Room. If that happens, Huckabee says, Willie Nelson will open for him.