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GOP conservative
Mike Huckabee fights to reach top-tier status

GOP conservative
Mike Huckabee fights to reach top-tier status

Mike Huckabee has a resume fit for a GOP presidential nominee: Southern Baptist preacher, former Arkansas governor, fierce opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage. Those attributes would seem to be exactly what fellow conservatives are looking for in a candidate.

What he lacks is money and a household name, shortcomings that have proved costly to his campaign. He barely registers in polls and is struggling to break out of the pack of Republicans seeking to be seen as credible alternatives to the strongest contenders--Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

''I'm a serious candidate,'' Huckabee said in an interview, arguing that the media should treat him as such. ''You'd think those three are the only people running.''

His predicament is common in the wide-open 2008 race where there are qualified candidates who are significantly hampered by the high-money, star-studded nature of the contest. Among Democrats, Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson fit that mold.

Their difficulties reflect the frenzied nature of an early campaign that places even greater importance on fund-raising, organization, and celebrity. As a result, otherwise strong hopefuls might be forced to quit the race before most voters begin paying attention. Already, three expected heavy-hitters--Republican Bill Frist and Democrats Mark Warner and Evan Bayh--decided not to run.

In the GOP contest, Giuliani, McCain, and Romney have more money, superior campaign organizations, and better marks in popularity polls than Huckabee. Yet conservatives who are important voters in the primaries view the three front-runners as flawed.

''Huckabee comes across credible. He's an articulate conservative. But, so far, he is a victim of the money game,'' said David Carney, a Republican operative in New Hampshire. ''Another problem he has is a Newt and a Fred out there.''

That's a reference to ex-House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson. Both are polling far ahead of Huckabee as they simply consider whether to run.

With so many serious contenders in a field that could grow even larger, is there even room for Huckabee to emerge?

He believes so and pledges to compete hard, even as he acknowledges the hurdles. ''There's a definite disadvantage on the money side,'' he said, and media coverage can be hard for an underfunded hopeful to earn.

His strategy relies on using his stellar communication skills to shine in debates and gain footing with the media while continuing to generate grassroots support in small Iowa and New Hampshire venues.

''He's building the momentum that's necessary to peak at the right time,'' said David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor who endorsed Huckabee on Saturday and calls him the GOP's dark horse. ''As the dust settles and the smoke clears, he'll be standing in the top tier with a great chance at becoming the nominee because he appeals to the average voter.''

Huckabee contends he will benefit as the three front-runners face increased scrutiny on issues that matter to the Right and as he promotes his conservative credentials.

''Those guys are all out-front. They might as well be wearing bull's-eyes on their back,'' Huckabee said. ''Every time we're doing debates and voters see me onstage with them, they'll see that I belong there too.''

Republican observers have praised Huckabee's recent debate performances and said he is the most likely of the seven GOP underdogs to gain steam.

''Very sharp,'' said Chuck Laudner, the Iowa GOP's executive director. He said Huckabee's debate appearances reflect the savvy he is showing while campaigning. ''He's saying the right things, and he's saying them in the right places.''

A gifted orator, Huckabee combines a grasp of the issues, honed over 10 1/2 years as governor, with a minister's plainspoken language and a Southerner's down-home charm.

He had the one-liner of Tuesday's debate at the University of South Carolina when he mocked a Democratic candidate's $400 haircuts. ''We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop,'' he said.

More substantively, he deftly answered critics who call him a serial tax-raiser. He said he cut taxes 94 times as governor--"that's a pretty doggone good record.'' He defended a voter-approved gas tax increase to improve roads and a sales tax increase following a court order to improve schools.

''Do I apologize for going along with what 80% of the people of my state supported? No. Nor do I, in any way, apologize for building roads,'' he said. ''Do I apologize for complying with a Supreme Court order to improve education in [a] state that desperately needed it? Of course I don't.''

Politely, he challenged Giuliani for believing abortion is wrong but backing abortion rights. Huckabee praised the former New York City mayor for being honest about his position but said, ''If something is morally wrong, let's oppose it.''

His folksy style showed again in a critique of the country.

''There's an old saying in the South: It takes more money to do it over than it does to do it right,'' Huckabee said. ''We're now seeing that in the United States. We're doing a lot of things over. Maybe we should have just done it right.''

Since leaving office in January, Huckabee has mostly campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire while making frequent trips to New York City and Washington, D.C., for fund-raising events and media appearances. He plans to focus heavily on Iowa in leading up to a major test, a straw poll in August.

Money, however, is such a concern--he raised a paltry $544,000 from January through March--that he may end up having to choose between competing in Iowa's leadoff caucuses or focusing on New Hampshire's primary. (Liz Sidoti, AP)

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