Huckabee brings his lean campaign to O.C.

Times Staff Writer

The others were in pivotal places elsewhere: John McCain hammering his case with veterans in Iowa, Mitt Romney courting Republican women in Texas, and Rudolph W. Giuliani shaking hands in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

So what was Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee -- the near-asterisk in the polls, the former governor more famous for losing 110 pounds than anything he did in office, the second-best politician to come out of tiny Hope, Ark. -- doing in an office park in Irvine?

Whatever he can.

In a lawyer’s conference room Wednesday, Huckabee was working to impress three dozen members of the local Lincoln Club, hitting on the issues -- during the portion that was open to reporters -- in a soothing voice that masked some rather pointed rhetoric.


On energy independence: “This is a country that when it says it has to do something, it can do it.”

On a controversial ad denouncing Iraq war commander Army Gen. David H. Petraeus: “Ridiculous, embarrassing, disgusting, appalling, absolutely inexcusable.”

On the Republican-backed 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border: “It’s just not long enough,” he said to laughter, before taking care to note that he is not angry at immigrants, but “at our government for sitting on their hands for over 20 years and doing absolutely nothing to stop a problem that has now boiled over.”

At the end, after applause that veered from polite to enthusiastic, he said goodbye, with a hint. “I’m looking forward to coming back and hopefully reaching deep into your heart and pocket for the opportunity to help our campaign across the country,” he said.

On television, campaigns are patriotic bunting, well-lit beaming candidates, and confetti that falls just so onto the shoulders of rapturous supporters in massive arenas. In reality, campaigns are a long slog through lawyers’ conference rooms, candidates pleading with potential supporters -- in small groups and minuscule ones -- for their hearts and pocketbooks.

That is particularly true for candidates like Huckabee, straining to emerge from the back of the pack, yearning to hit double digits in the polls, glad for the chance to convince even one more voter that those at the top of the heap have nowhere to go but down. And him? Quite the opposite could be true.

“People forget how rapidly the whole field can change,” he said in an interview.

The way he sees it, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney has plateaued, despite spending a fortune. Arizona Sen. McCain has flopped dramatically. Former New York City Mayor Giuliani “has had somewhat, if not a big, fall.” And actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, the latest to enter the race, “is probably right now at his peak.”

Huckabee is still reveling in his second-place finish in last month’s Iowa straw poll, a party fundraiser whose results are lauded by those who do well and derided by those who don’t. This year, candidates McCain, Giuliani and Thompson were no-shows, and the prodigiously financed Romney won. But it is Huckabee who has managed to use his 2,500 straw votes as desperately needed fuel for his campaign.

His website has been flooded by offers of support, he said, and donors who previously would not return his calls are now setting up events. One fundraiser scheduled before the straw vote was held Wednesday night in Beverly Hills.

So right now, the imperative is to maintain momentum. Huckabee is doing so with a full-throated appeal to a Republican Party he thinks he alone -- a former minister and governor from humble beginnings -- represents.

In criticism that splashes most of his opponents, he claims to be “a person who has been consistent, who hasn’t had to reinvent himself as a convert to conservatism, having had a recent epiphany about what it is to be one,” he said.

“There are a lot of people in California, like the rest of the country, who are looking for a Republican who is not an establishment Republican, who is not a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street, who is a person really that has more connection with blue collar than blue blood,” he said.

But even with a minimal uptick in the polls, he is in single digits.

In a Wednesday Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of three early-voting states, “don’t know” beat Huckabee, 2 to 1. But hope -- the sentiment, not the hometown he shares with Bill Clinton -- lives.

Until things change, his campaign is lean. He flies commercial with a stripped-down entourage.

He figures if he stays in the hunt, he’s halfway to victory.

“Our trajectory has been like this the entire time,” he said, canting his arm upward. “We’ve never had a time where we started slipping back and had to re-energize the campaign.”

The other part is tougher, and out of his control: Those ahead of him have to stumble.

“We’ve seen some and there’ll be some more [stumbles],” he said. “Not that we’ll put nails in the road ahead of them -- don’t think we have to. We just stay out of the way so that when these cars crash into each other we don’t get in the wreckage.”