- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2008

Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign may be nearing its end, but those around him say he won’t disappear and is poised to claim political leadership of conservative evangelicals.

Mr. Huckabee’s inner circle says he’s the perfect bridge to re-establish the Christian right, which has suffered over the last decade, as a political force that speaks for millions of voters.

“He has become the leader of a new generation of Christian conservative voters,” said Rex Nelson, who was communications director when Mr. Huckabee was Arkansas’ governor. “The old leadership has either passed on in the case of [the Rev. Jerry] Falwell or become either irrelevant or out of touch — the Pat Robertson endorsement of Rudy Giuliani proves that.”

“There is nobody else you can identify outside of Mike Huckabee as a leading person to take on that role, really in a new era where evangelicals care about a lot of things like the environment and working with the poor,” Mr. Nelson said.

Mr. Huckabee said he will remain in the Republican nomination battle until someone reaches 1,191 delegates to the September convention. Sen. John McCain of Arizona would clinch the nomination tomorrow with wins in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island.

Several of Mr. Huckabee’s close advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss possibilities, said he does not have an interest in a Cabinet position or in running for the U.S. Senate from Arkansas, but said being on a ticket as vice president would be an attractive alternative. One adviser mentioned a role as Republican National Committee chairman, while another said he might be best suited for a role outside the party.

Mr. Huckabee is a former Southern Baptist pastor who has energized evangelical Republican voters this year, but his camp has been surprised at how little support evangelical leaders have offered and, in fact, how much they worked against him.

That could signal a split between evangelical leaders and their supporters, which Mr. Huckabee’s supporters say leaves the field open for him, both among those religious values voters and a broader conservative audience.

“He now has become the voice and face of conservative America. Whether it’s conservatism or Christian conservatism, I think the options now are wide open for him to decide how does he want to take advantage in the right way,” said former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, one of Mr. Huckabee’s early supporters.

Similar to Mr. Falwell, Mr. Huckabee has been a church pastor, and he has shown the communication skills of Mr. Robertson. But he also brings a new element — he has won repeatedly in primaries and caucuses, carrying eight states: Iowa, West Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and Kansas.

Not everyone is happy with Mr. Huckabee’s continued campaign. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, called him last month to ask him to drop out, and some Republican fundraisers privately say he no longer serves a purpose in the campaign. Some operatives suspect he’s staying in the race because money is still flowing on the Internet and it allows him to keep his own profile high.

But Mr. Huckabee’s inner circle says he feels an obligation to his voters and to the party to stay in the race until someone wins the nomination outright, and Mr. Huckabee himself said he will stay in as long as there’s the chance for a brokered convention.

They also say that by not scorching Mr. McCain with attacks and by continuing to draw crowds, he is not damaging himself or the party.

“Normally you would argue he’s at that point. But I think because of his humor, his wit, self-deprecation, I think he’s fine at this stage, given the excitement that still exists out there for his candidacy,” Mr. Beasley said.

Powered in part, if not primarily, by evangelical voters, Mr. Huckabee has won slightly more than 3 million votes — about 20 percent of the total — in the Republican primaries and caucuses, according to the count kept by www.TheGreenPapers.com.

Those are voters Mr. McCain will want to reach for the general election — but he has had a difficult time connecting with them and might need Mr. Huckabee’s help.

“When the race is all done and Mike is still out there, I think the Republican Party needs to keep Mike around so that all those people over the years who felt the Republican Party moved away from them realize it wasn’t the party, it was them,” said Robert E. Clegg Jr., a Republican state senator in New Hampshire.

That matters particularly in places such as Iowa, usually a swing state in November. Mr. Huckabee won its January caucuses, while Mr. McCain didn’t even campaign in the state.

Mr. Huckabee might have broken the mold for campaigns — proving someone with low fundraising can still compete and win states.

“We are running one of the most cost-effective political campaigns in modern American history, chiefly because of the governor’s ability to communicate and the campaign’s ability to excel on the earned media front,” said Kirsten Fedewa, who has contributed to Mr. Huckabee’s media strategy for years.

By one estimate the campaign’s earned media is the equivalent of $125 million in paid ads, and that was before his appearance on “Saturday Night Live” last month.

Former Sen. Tim Hutchinson, an Arkansas ally of Mr. Huckabee’s, said Mr. Huckabee could write columns and do radio and television the same way Ronald Reagan did between his unsuccessful 1976 Republican primary campaign and his 1980 presidential victory.

“He has enhanced his national reputation enormously and he’s relatively young and has a very, very bright future,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

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