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Long odds are story of his life

Times Staff Writer

People musing about what keeps Mike Huckabee in the race for the presidency have wondered if he’s sowing the ground for future television deals, angling for a vice presidential nod or getting ready to run for the White House again in 2012.

If those are his goals, the former Arkansas governor isn’t admitting it. He told half a dozen audiences over the last three days in Wisconsin that he can still win or, at the very least, give voice to conservative voters not yet sold on the presumptive Republican Party nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

And Huckabee, 53, spoke in an interview about another motivation -- keeping faith with his can-do life story, one that has included a fair number of battles with doubters and naysayers.

So the Huckabee who campaigned energetically across this snowbound state through Friday morning, in advance of Tuesday’s primary, was at once the former broadcaster and Southern Baptist preacher, quoting Isaiah and dropping one-liners. (On hunting armadillos: “We call those, in Arkansas, possum on the half-shell.”)

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He was also the teenager who was told he couldn’t be elected a class officer, the overweight young man who struggled to complete a marathon walk, and the unlikely scholar who worked his way through college in just 2 1/2 years.

“As a kid growing up, I always lived with the idea of what I couldn’t do. And it only motivated me,” Huckabee said in an interview. “And I think that’s what a lot of people don’t understand about me. When people . . . try to push me out and discourage me, it just creates in me a steely resolve to say, ‘Nope, not gonna do it.’ ”

Huckabee said he was determined to continue on, regardless of the results of the Wisconsin primary. His staff is already laying plans for appearances this week in Texas, which holds its primary March 4. And Huckabee pledged to continue hopping from state to state “and fighting hard until someone gets to 1,191" -- the number of delegates needed to win the Republican nomination.

In every election season, candidates promise to continue their campaigns, only to concede in the face of onrushing defeat. But Huckabee has from the start been accustomed to long odds and a campaign run on a relative shoestring.

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Without the resources to out-advertise McCain, Huckabee can fall back on two dependable ingredients firing his campaign: a core of fervent, mostly Christian-evangelical supporters, who urge him to persist, and the continuing success of a booking operation that relentlessly finds him airtime on national and local television programs. In one particularly heady stretch after his five primary victories in the Super Tuesday contests Feb. 5, Huckabee knocked out nearly two dozen TV appearances in about 18 hours.

Attendance at rallies here beginning Wednesday night was relatively modest, about 100 to 300 people at each stop. But many of those who attended said they would find it hard to vote for anybody but Huckabee.

They called out “Amen!” as their man noted he was the only remaining candidate to support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. They hooted in affirmation as he tore up another 1040 form on stage -- symbolic of his pledge to abolish the Internal Revenue Service in favor of a national sales tax. They chuckled knowingly when Huckabee, a 2nd Amendment champion, talked about how he and wife, Janet, toted concealed weapons when he was in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock. (The punch line: “And she’s the one you’d better look out for.”)

Huckabee has a way of warding off confrontation by delivering even his toughest pronouncements with a smile. One minute, he is joking to voters in La Crosse that they should simply let the air out of the car tires of voters who will support McCain on Tuesday. The next, he is telling reporters that, if more “law-abiding” citizens carried guns, tragedies like Thursday’s mass shooting at an Illinois university might have been prevented.

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Fans like Karan Johnson of Platteville, who came to a rally Thursday at a hotel in downtown Madison, said they hoped to fulfill Huckabee’s dream scenario -- a Wisconsin victory that would unsettle the sense of McCain as the inevitable Republican winner.

“I think it’s awesome he is not worrying about offending the Republican Party; he is thinking about us,” said Johnson, a weight management coach, who also appreciates Huckabee for his success in dropping more than 100 pounds several years ago. “It’s about the people’s voices right here in this room and in Ohio and in Texas. They should still have a say.

“I believe God has a plan for this man’s life,” added Johnson, a self-described Christian, “and I think it’s to go all the way to the White House.”

When he wasn’t greeting the public, Huckabee churned out more television interviews, which often provide low-confrontation moments for a candidate to shine -- as when Huckabee donned a Green Bay Packers necktie for a boyish-looking television news reporter. (The reporter promptly dropped his journalistic impartiality, offering his support to the candidate.)

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Yet even friendly venues can’t spare Huckabee from repeated questions about why he soldiers on. Former candidate Mitt Romney’s endorsement last week of McCain prompted a new round of reminders from reporters that Huckabee could win virtually every remaining contest, by a wide margin, and still fall short of the delegate total needed to secure his party’s nomination.

Huckabee has several answers to the question: that McCain could still stumble. That he won’t be forced out by Washington insiders. That he still speaks for many voters, whom he refuses to let down.

“I’m yet to have one of my supporters tell me it’s time to quit, not one,” Huckabee said. “We are still seeing dramatic traffic to my website, new donors every day. They are saying, ‘Don’t quit, you are speaking for us.’ ”

News that Huckabee was leaving the campaign trail Friday for the Cayman Islands, where he was delivering a paid speech to young professionals Saturday night, renewed questions about whether his campaign was losing steam.

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But the candidate said that the speaking engagement had been scheduled long ago and that he had to continue to accept such engagements to pay his bills.

Not unlike former Democratic candidate John Edwards, Huckabee plays on his personal story -- the boy with modest Southern roots striving to make it in the world of national politics -- to build empathy with audiences filled with working-class voters.

He tells of a mother who grew up in a home with dirt floors and no electricity, and of a father who didn’t graduate from high school. He describes going to work at 14, and then pushing through college in a hurry because he couldn’t afford to keep paying the tuition.

Huckabee doesn’t say it explicitly, but when he talks about the Declaration of Independence -- “all men are created equal” -- it’s clear he means the audience to see his hopes, and theirs, in those famous words.

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Long before Democratic candidate Barack Obama, Huckabee insists, “I have been out there, talking about hope.

“There is a certain, I think, vicarious attachment people have, because they know if the American dream can work for me, then it can work for their kids too,” he said.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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