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Huckabee's Team Eager to Gear Up in S.C.

Huckabee's Team Eager to Gear Up in S.C.

By Scott Conroy - April 18, 2011

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- "You have to have South Carolina to win," Mike Huckabee said last month during a stop here on his latest book tour. Or was it really just a "book" tour?

The former Arkansas governor has been clear that he will not take another stab at the presidency unless he thinks he can win. As he gauges his chances of mounting a successful White House run, no state looms larger in his calculus than South Carolina.

And his most recent visit to the first-in-the-South primary state gave him some reason to be encouraged.

As his bus rolled through the familiar Midlands and Upstate countryside, Huckabee was greeted by cheering supporters who gathered at stops from Florence to Greenville, waving signs from his 2008 White House run. Their message: they have not forgotten him, and they are still energized.

Huckabee also received some more discreet -- yet equally enthusiastic - - encouragement when he huddled behind closed doors with some of his most influential supporters in the state: former South Carolina Governor David Beasley, senior adviser Mike Campbell, HuckPAC executive director Hogan Gidley and former South Carolina campaign spokesman Adam Piper.

"There was a very candid and frank conversation about 2008 and about things we could've done better," Piper related. "And we talked about 2012."

If he runs, Huckabee might be poised to repeat his 2008 victory in the Iowa caucuses. But his challenge figures to be steeper in South Carolina, where he finished second last time around to eventual Republican nominee John McCain.

Although Huckabee apparently has not yet made up his mind about another White House run, his South Carolina team-in-waiting is unanimous in agreeing that he could pull it off, even if he gets a later start than his rivals.

"I don't think there's any doubt that he is seriously considering it, and I don't think there's any question that encouragement from South Carolina voters and leaders will influence him," former Gov. Beasley told RCP.

As an unknown and underfunded political afterthought in the early stages of the 2008 race, Huckabee was compelled to rely almost exclusively on generating grassroots enthusiasm and momentum from an early win in Iowa, rather than building a robust political infrastructure.

In the end, this formula was not quite enough to push him to victory in South Carolina. But in 2012, aides predict, the ordained Baptist minister would be able to rely on resources far more concrete than a hope and a prayer.

"We were the Bad News Bears who somehow made it to the World Series," Piper said. "There was a certain charm that came with that. But this time around, if Governor Huckabee jumps in, it'll be a little different."

Still, Huckabee does not dispute the perception that fundraising is hardly his political forte. Any Republican who hopes to win the nomination will need more than a modest sum to contend in a crowded primary field, let alone compete in the general election with an incumbent president said to be eyeing the billion-dollar mark for his own re-election bid.

Huckabee recently presided over a series of meetings with financial backers in New York -- where he hosts his popular television show on Fox News -- in an attempt to ascertain whether he could generate the resources he would need to persuade him to set aside his comfortable private life in order to spend more than a year on the campaign grind.

According to aides, the takeaway was positive.

"Governor Huckabee has not asked anyone for money for a presidential run, nor has he told anyone that he's going to be a candidate. However, the governor of course has conversations with people all the time to gauge what kind of support he might have if he does announce," Gidley, who served as the South Carolina GOP's executive director before taking the helm of HuckPAC, told RCP in a statement. "The governor is encouraged by these conversations and by virtually every credible poll in the nation that lists him as the definitive frontrunner."

While presidential campaigns traditionally shy away from the frontrunner label, Huckabee and his team are fighting publicly to claim it. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may have won more states and a higher percentage of overall votes in 2008, but Huckabee was more competitive in several key contests, they argue, and was the last serious contender who remained in the race to challenge McCain.

"When people will talk about Mitt Romney being the presumed frontrunner, I'm not sure where they're getting that information from because if you take a look at the majority of the polls, he's not winning in a majority of the polls," Mike Campbell said. "Not only that, but people seem to forget that Romney came in third last time. Huckabee came in second and did so without the money Romney had."

His advisers know that since it will be relatively late in the game if and when Huckabee gets into the race, they will be well behind the other candidates in terms of early organizing, and must instead project an air of potency to his campaign. Although his early poll numbers have been strong, there are mixed indications of his overall level of strength nationally and especially in do-or-die South Carolina.

Huckabee publicly touted his victory in the York County Republican Party straw poll conducted earlier this month but was silent after his disappointing fifth-place finishes in two subsequent South Carolina county straw polls.

"There's no question that Huckabee has a strong following here but I think if you notice in those results, he did poorly there," said Upstate GOP strategist Chip Felkel, who has committed to work for former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's likely presidential bid. "He's been here for three years on book tours, and he's been reaching out to folks, so you almost think there's a shift in the way people think about him. They like him, but I don't know if they necessarily anticipate a candidacy at this point."

A top White House official privately told RCP late last year that Huckabee was the Republican candidate with whom Obama aides had been most apprehensive about sharing a debate stage in 2008, and early polls of hypothetical 2012 general election matchups indicate that the former Arkansas governor could plausibly make the electability argument in a second presidential run.

He may not be taking the overt steps that his prospective rivals have taken toward a campaign, but Huckabee's team remains confident that a summer launch would be just the right time to make his Republican rivals and President Obama sweat.

"I think he's going to run," Mike Campbell said. "I think at the end of the day, he will."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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