Huckabee's Fight for Relevance

Gov. Mike Huckabee is downright tired of people asking him when he's going to drop out of the race for president, particularly as speculation mounts that he's in it just to raise his profile in the hope of a vice presidential nod. The day after The New York Giants stunned the world and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, Huckabee reminded the press of the dangers of calling a contest before it's over.

"They were also talking about how the Patriots had the Super Bowl wrapped up and there wasn't any point in people watching," Huckabee said Monday at a campaign stop in Texarkana, Ark., the latest of several events he has held recently in airplane hangars at small airports throughout the South. "With only 8 percent of the delegates in, it's way too early for that."

A full month after rushing out of the gates by winning the Iowa caucuses, Huckabee's campaign is stuck in neutral. It's not that he's going backward so much as John McCain is surging ahead and Mitt Romney has continued to move forward. As those two candidates have continued to pick up delegates over the last month, trading first- and second-place finishes in New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida, Huckabee's count has slowed to a trickle; he has become the third man in a two-man race. Until Super Tuesday, Iowa remained his only win, his only finish above third place—and it accounted for three-quarters of his 40 delegates. In the intervening weeks Huckabee has picked up just 10 delegates, including a disappointing five in South Carolina—until a ray of light broke on Super Tuesday, and he pulled in another 18 delegates by carrying West Virginia's GOP caucuses. On the stump he has remained optimistic about his chances for the nomination. But on the eve of Super Tuesday Huckabee had a decidedly toned-down definition of success. Asked how he will define victory on Tuesday, Huckabee said, "Success to me is that nobody gets 1,191 delegates yet. Until that happens, there's still a race on."

Over the last week Huckabee has concentrated his campaigning in the South, particularly in five states going to the polls Tuesday: Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee, and his home state of Arkansas, where he is still a relatively well-liked two-term governor (despite having rankled some fiscal conservatives in the state with big spending projects on roads and education). Huckabee campaign staffers are circumspect in public, but they clearly see a victory in the winner-take-all state of Arkansas (31 delegates) as crucial to his chances of going forward. "This is home, and we feel good about how we'll do, but we feel good about how we'll do in Alabama and Georgia and Missouri and Tennessee, too," said Huckabee campaign chairmain Chip Saltsman.

He may have slipped in national polls, but Huckabee remains formidable down this way, leading Romney in Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. His image as the candidate of "Wal-Mart Republicans" rather than "Wall Street Republicans" plays well, and his recent events in Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas have played it up, featuring music by Brooks and Dunn and, of course, the constant presence of Chuck "Walker, Texas Ranger" Norris at his side. Norris will be his pick for not only secretary of defense but also homeland security, Huckabee jokes. (At least, we hope he's joking.) "As soon as Al Qaeda and the Taliban see Chuck Norris coming, we'll never hear from them again," the candidate said in Blountville, Tenn., on Monday. On the stump Huckabee touts his unwavering pro-life stance and his lifelong advocacy for Second Amendment rights. His Fair Tax plan and desire to "be the first guy to nail the out-of-business notice on the door of the IRS" also strikes a chord among Southern conservatives. And his recent flourish of tearing up tax-return forms on stage, accompanied by the quip "Goodbye paperwork, hello freedom!" generated thunderous applause at events on Monday, where Huckabee supporters sported their share of Dixie caps and pro-life stickers.

It's good theater, but is it enough to keep Huckabee's hopes alive? He may connect with the socially conservative crowd, but unfortunately for him polls show that those issues are not as much on voters' minds as the economy and national security—subjects on which McCain and Romney seem to carry greater popular sway. As a result, he's hovering at around 18 percent of the vote in national polls, on average. Huckabee is still influencing the race, and he remains a thorn in the side of Romney, who last week suggested that a vote for Huckabee is a vote for McCain. Huckabee wasted no time in lobbing voter suppression accusations at Romney and hammering the former Massachusetts governor as a flip-flopper: "I'm pretty sure my voters will not be voting for Mitt Romney, because they know where they stand on the Second Amendment, and pro-life and … he's stood on both sides of them. My folks aren't that squishy." The tough question for Huckabee at this point: how many of "his voters" will turn out on Tuesday?