Mike Huckabee loves it when the odds look bad. They play right into the core theme of his candidacy. He is, after all, the other man from Hope, Ark., the first male in his family to graduate high school, the poor kid who grew up just a "generation away from dirt floors and outdoor toilets." And look at him now. He's 52 years old, a former governor, 100 pounds off his top weight, and out there mounting a serious run for President of the United States.
So what is candidate Huckabee to do when the odds go from bad to worse to damn near impossible? As the last week has made clear, he does not flinch or throw up his hands in exasperation. He seems to get even more excited, relishing his role as a modern-day David staring down a growing Goliath. Then he talks about tornadoes, a yard sign and miracles.
The tornadoes touched down last week in Brandenburg, Kentucky, and the yard sign was stuck in the lawn of one of his supporters. "A Mike Huckabee yard sign," he told the crowd Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., where his rival Mitt Romney had quit his campaign only two days earlier. The wind damaged a nearby home, but the sign didn't budge, Huckabee told the crowd. "Standing pristine without a hint of damage, even leaning, was that yard sign," he said. "Folks, I want you to know across America, everywhere there is a vote still to be cast, I'm still standing."
Of course, the crowd ate it up, with whoops and hollers and cheers. Huckabee's crowds always do. By Saturday night, it was evident that his supporters all across the country were still standing too. Huckabee had declared victory in two more states Kansas, where he beat the presumptive nominee, John McCain, by a convincing two-to-one margin in a caucus, and Louisiana, where he edged out McCain with more votes in a primary. In a third contest, a caucus in Washington State, he nearly fought McCain to a draw, losing by about 223 delegate votes, or 1.6%, with 93% of the precincts reporting; on Sunday, however, his campaign, citing unspecified "irregularities," said it was not ready to concede the state and would explore legal options of challenging the result.
None of this changes the bitter math that Huckabee faces as he struggles to force a convention floor fight with McCain. As it stands in the latest CNN delegate estimate, McCain leads Huckabee by a margin of 723 to 217, with only about 1,000 delegates left to be awarded. Under the party rules, 1,191 delegates are needed to win the nomination, which means Huckabee would have to win most of the remaining contests. It will, in Huckabee's own words, take a miracle. "I know people say that the math doesn't work out," the Baptist pastor politician said over the weekend. "Folks, I didn't major in math. I majored in miracles, and I still believe in those too."
Evidently, he is not alone. His rally Saturday afternoon in College Park, Maryland, drew more than 1,000 people, overflowing a large room. As elsewhere, many in the crowd were evangelical Christians, who were drawn to Huckabee for his values. Some were true believers. Some were protest voters, who were not yet ready to get behind a McCain coronation. "McCain still needs to know that there are a lot of us who still aren't happy with a lot of his stated positions," said Doug Champ, a Republican union automotive worker, who lives in White Marsh, Maryland. He also added, "I think everybody knows, even most of the people in this room know, that McCain will be the nominee."
As the polls now stand, Huckabee is a dramatic underdog heading into the February 12 primaries in Virginia and Maryland, with McCain outpolling him by a margin of two to one. But the Huckabee campaign says it has its eye fixed firmly on the March 4 primary in Texas, where Huckabee could benefit from his southern appeal, and lingering conservative skepticism on McCain's positions on campaign finance reform and immigration. Whatever happens, Huckabee's strategists maintain without fail that the candidate will not be swayed by pressure from fellow Republicans to bow out before one candidate reaches 1,191 delegates. On Friday, Huckabee received a call from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, asking him to leave the race, according to someone familiar with the call. Huckabee told his fellow governor no. "We don't care. We're not about the party. We never have been," said Ed Rollins, Huckabee's national chairman, backstage at the Maryland rally. "To a certain extent this is about the people. They get their choice."
In an appearance on NBC's Meet The Press Sunday, Huckabee rejected as "nonsense" the notion that his continued battle against McCain could weaken the Republican Party or drain resources from the general election effort. "If our party can't have a thoughtful discussion and some meaningful debate and dialogue about the issues important to us as a party, then we are really not prepared to lead," he said. He has also been quick to reject any notion that could perhaps be endangering his own long-term political viability at the forefront of the conservative movement, drawing explicit comparisons between his candidacy and Ronald Reagan's in 1976 against the incumbent Gerald Ford. "[The establishment] had all begged him to get out of the race in '76 and not take it to the convention, but he had convictions, and he stood by those convictions," Huckabee told reporters this past weekend. "And now when you talk to Republicans, the Reagan name is the gold standard," he said.
All of which means that the "people," as Rollins describes them, get a few more weeks to hear from a enthusiastic candidate who seems to always see victory, even in the face of defeat. At a press conference Saturday morning, one reporter blurted out what has become for Huckabee a comfortable truth. "Governor, basically you have nothing to lose by staying in," she called from the back of the scrum. Huckabee paused. "Ah," he said, before smiling. "No. I don't guess I do."