However magical his victory in Iowa, Mike Huckabee's campaign staff knew that their dance towards the Republican nomination had to be a two-step. Without wins in Iowa and South Carolina, the two early voting states teeming with evangelical voters, trouble would loom.
On Saturday, trouble arrived along with bad weather, the surging campaign of John McCain and the unexpectedly fierce attacks of also-ran Fred Thompson. As the results poured in, it became clear to Huckabee's senior advisors that Thompson had made significant inroads in the conservative northern part of the state, where Huckabee needed big numbers to fend off McCain's moderate support along the coast. "We needed bigger margins out of Greenville and Spartanburg, and the difference was Fred," said Huckabee's campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, after his candidate conceded. "He wasn't running a race for him. He was attacking Mike Huckabee for the last two weeks."
Those attacks became a standard feature of Thompson's campaign in the closing days before the primary. The Huckabee campaign had no solution for Thompson, who barely polled within striking distance of second place and was seen by some as a foil for McCain, with whom he is friends. "Fred Thompson, John McCain's lapdog, came down here and definitely hurt the Huckabee vote, no doubt about that," said former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, who chaired the Huckabee campaign here, after the loss.
Too short on cash to blanket local television with ads, Huckabee also suffered from a self-inflicted wound the decision to put up a fight in last Tuesday's Michigan primary. "Had we had a couple more days here, we would have definitely won, no ifs, ands, or buts about it," said Beasley. Instead, while Thompson camped out in South Carolina, Huckabee spent nearly four days after the New Hampshire primary traveling through Michigan, where he finished a distant third.
In his concession speech, Huckabee praised McCain for running a clean campaign. "The two of us who finished on top ran with a level of civility," Huckabee said, marking a contrast to the sometimes vicious battle he waged with Mitt Romney in Iowa, and the constant criticism he received from Thompson. "I would rather be where I am and have done it with honor than to have won with the dishonor of getting there by attacking somebody else."
But honor will not get Huckabee the nomination. As the calendar flies by, the states get bigger and even more costly, putting his shoestring campaign under increasing pressure. And Huckabee is still struggling to appeal beyond his evangelical base. In two states now, Michigan and South Carolina, his message of economic populism has failed to make substantial inroads.
Huckabee has been counted out before only to bounce back and surprise skeptics, and Saltsman points out that after Florida which votes on Jan. 29 and where polls show Huckabee in a four-way dead heat the campaign expects to do well in a number of the mostly Southern states that vote on February 5th, namely Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Tennessee.
In the meantime, Huckabee is working to keep his supporters optimistic. "Let me just say that tonight is not a time to start asking, what if? It's a time to start talking about, what now?" Huckabee told a cheering crowd of hundreds that failed to fill a ballroom at the Columbia Convention Center. "I don't want us to leave here saying, well, the game has ended. No, we have just finished one of the quarters of play." One quarter, perhaps, but two very critical steps.