WINTERSET, IOWA -- When Mike Huckabee gave a rousing “good morning” to about two-dozen potential caucus-goers at Northside Café in Winterset last week, the response from the crowd was so peppy it seemed to even surprise the candidate.
“It’s like you’ve been to church before,” laughed Huckabee, who received just two percent support from GOP caucus-goers in Sunday's NBC/WSJ/Marist poll of Iowa Republicans.
With the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and even Donald Trump swooping into Iowa and largely garnering the backing of evangelicals, the coalition that fueled Huckabee's unlikely 2008 caucus win isn't reuniting for the former Arkansas governor's reprise campaign.
Yet Huckabee’s RV continues to motor across the Hawkeye State.
Huckabee is in the midst of a month-long trek through the state, where he intends to hold 150 campaign events before the caucus on February 1.
But unlike the surging Cruz, who wrapped up a six-day Iowa swing this weekend trailed by a bus of reporters and 20 caravanning staffers (including Huckabee’s recently-departed communications director, Alice Stewart), Huckabee is plucking away – town to town – with a humble team of four, and a noticeable limp from his knee surgery in November.
“I’m taking enormous amounts of Vitamin C and Vitamin D,” Huckabee told the group inside the café last weekend, losing his voice and picking up a glass of water. “--B, E, F and G. And it doesn’t seem to work a whole lot.”
After months of diligent campaigning, Huckabee has yet to see the bump in the polls with just three weeks left to gain viability.
“I wouldn’t be out here busting it if I didn’t think there was some real pathway to make this work,” Huckabee insisted to NBC News aboard his RV, holding onto hope that his commitment to retail politicking through Iowa will pay dividends, venting that “last time I checked, nobody’s voted yet.”
“If this state can be won without retail politics, in the next four-year cycle it won’t be a retail politics state anymore,” Huckabee said.
A report last month suggested Huckabee’s candidacy had taken on a new agenda – to siphon off Cruz voters to aid Rubio’s bid.
Huckabee emphatically rejected that notion.
“Why would I do that? I mean, that makes no sense at all,” Huckabee said. “And I just think that people – even with single digit IQs, slightly above vegetation of broccoli – will know that that story is utter nonsense with no basis of even remote reality much less common sense.”
Huckabee took his rejection of the theory a step further, airing his grievances with the race and candidacies of both Cruz and Rubio.
“They’ve never been in the position where they had to make the decision that a chief executive of a government had to make,” Huckabee said, adding: “If the presidency is an entry level job for which there is no particular prerequisite of experience, and you can pretty much pick a name out of a phone book as long as someone can make a pretty good speech and could study and learn a few issues, then, yeah, anybody can do it.”
Asked by NBC News if one of the governors running is more qualified to be the party’s nominee, Huckabee said “absolutely.”
“If knowing what the job is matters, then absolutely I would say that,” Huckabee said.
“My point, ‘Guys, these guys have been in Washington. If you want to hold someone accountable or responsible, they have a lot more of their fingerprints on Washington than me,’” he added.
Huckabee wasn't reminiscing about his 2008 Iowa victory during his latest campaign swing.
Instead, he’s been stumping at traditional venues -- like a soda fountain in Indianola and an American Legion in Newton -- and seemingly still reintroducing himself to voters.
Huckabee participated on the GOP’s main stage for the first three Republican debates before being relegated to the undercard matchups in November.
“I think the whole process has been a sham,” Huckabee said. “The sad thing is – rather than this be the most thoughtful approach to selecting a nominee, we’ve turned it into a game show. And it’s almost like an episode of Survivor.”
For now, Huckabee is still surviving.
And there are supporters who have yet to abandon his comeback bid.
“I don’t buy the polls. It ain’t over til it’s over,” said Thomas Dorman, alongside his wife, Shery, in Winterset. “[The polls are] not representative of how we think and feel – and just a lot of friends and people at church feel the same way we do.”
David Redlawsk, a professor at Drake University and author of "Why Iowa?" said it’s tough to count on “lightning to strike twice,” especially in what has become a more nationalized race. But seeing Huckabee in person, he didn’t dismiss the candidate's potential ability to garner consequential caucus support.
“There are still more people here than you’d expect,” Redlawsk said in Winterset. “Does that mean Huckabee can do it? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does better than we expect.”
And to Huckabee’s aid, several evangelical leaders in the state firmly dismiss the idea that Cruz has wrapped up the support of Iowa’s evangelicals, who make up a majority of the GOP electorate in the state.
“There’s a lot more to this story than suggestions it’s locked down for Ted Cruz — because it’s not,” said Jenifer Bowen, the head of Iowa Right to Life. “You have Rubio supporters. There are a lot of people in our ranks who are even fans of Donald Trump. And you have Huckabee and Santorum lovers in the rural areas.”
Sitting at ninth in the NBC/WSJ poll, Huckabee has a difficult path to traverse in Iowa but acknowledges the finish he needs to continue on to New Hampshire.
“We have to do well – we can’t come in at a distant fourth, fifth, sixth place and believe that there’s a pathway forward,” he continued.
As for the GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, Huckabee quips, “It takes a lot of confidence to wear [a hat] that out of style.”