Huckabee returns to the state Friday with an uptick in fundraising and fresh criticism aimed at his chief rivals. The former Arkansas governor's trip also carries a bevy of questions: can he convince New Hampshire the straw poll results matter; can the few religious voters in the state mobilize on his behalf; can he scramble a state organization late in an already frenetic campaign cycle.
The straw poll in Iowa is viewed by some as an early sign of organizational strength. With supporters paying to cast ballots, it's also a huge fundraiser for the state party. While Huckabee and others pushed hard for votes, three top Republicans - Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and the all-but-declared Fred Thompson - skipped the event and, to many, diminished its impact.
"I think that voters correctly see the straw poll as a scam," said Charlie Arlinghaus, a former Republican Party executive director who is now president of the Concord-based Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. "The only bump he'll get from it is the fact that he was scammed for less money than the rest of them."
Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor and broadcast executive, has struggled to find support in New Hampshire, a state where economic issues overshadow social ones.
However, Huckabee said he's not going to change his social-conservative message or biography to avoid scaring voters in New Hampshire. He plans a breakfast for clergy and remarks at an Auburn church, with both events closed to reporters.
"If he's looking for troops - door-to-door stuff, to build an organization on a shoestring - that may be significant," said Mark Silk, director of Trinity College's Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.
"It's not that anyone has any trouble getting people to the polls on primary day, but in terms of getting literature out there, it'd be great to be a fly on the wall and hear how they orchestrate the appeal to bona fide white evangelicals in New Hampshire," Silk said.Video: Cinderella story for Huckabee?
Economic conservatives, social liberals
Nationally, Huckabee badly lags behind rivals, both in money and support. His campaign raised only $1.3 million and reported less than $500,000 on hand after the first six months of this year. Only 2 percent of those surveyed in the most recent Granite State Poll conducted for WMUR-TV and CNN picked him instead of other Republican candidates.
"New Hampshire's not his greatest ground. Republicans there are different than Republicans are elsewhere," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "Republicans in New England are economic conservatives and social liberals. That's what they've always been. He's not the obvious person to appeal to that."
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Not that Huckabee won't try to boost his profile and show the differences with his top rivals who have been beset with charges of inconsistent positions on abortion and gay rights. He isn't afraid to remind voters of his upbringing in Hope, Ark., and to compare himself to multimillionaire Mitt Romney, the winner of the Iowa straw poll.
"Not all Republicans are from privilege," Huckabee said in an Associated Press interview Wednesday. "Many of us aren't Wall Street Republicans. We're Main Street Republicans."
The record, he said, will produce votes.
"When you have a lifelong history of believing and actually acting on your beliefs on a topic, you don't have to go proving it to anybody," he said. "One of the reason you're going to see a lot of the candidates running and saying 'I'm pro-life, I'm pro-life, I'm pro-Second Amendment, oh, and I believe in traditional marriage,' it's because no one believes they are, so they're trying to convince either the voters or themselves. ... I don't have to go and convince anybody."
Huckabee, perhaps wisely, tries to move quickly past the questions about religion - much like Romney does with questions about his Mormon faith. It's not an effort to dodge, he said, it's just that he wants to talk about matters related to the presidency. As he tells voters, he's running for commander in chief, not pastor in chief.
What remains, though, is for Huckabee to convince voters that he's their guy. Boston College's Wolfe remains skeptical.
"I still think it's going to be a hard sell for a Southern Baptist governor in a cold, increasingly liberal state like New Hampshire," Wolfe said.
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