Mike Huckabee spent the weekend in New Hampshire, where he saw something he had rarely seen in his two years as a Republican candidate for president: People. Lots of them. Living rooms and halls packed with voters, campaign aides, reporters and jostling television crews.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this to happen,” Mr. Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, said by telephone Sunday as he prepared to board an airplane here. “It’s everything we’ve been working for.”
Mr. Huckabee’s ascendance here — a Des Moines Register poll published Sunday showed his support had surged since early October — has sent rumbles across a field already in flux and raised concerns in the camp of rival Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts.
Mr. Romney stepped up his attacks on Mr. Huckabee over the weekend. And on Sunday, advisers to Mr. Romney, who would be the nation’s first Mormon president, announced that he would give a speech on Thursday intended to address any concerns about his faith.
Mr. Huckabee’s gains are powered by support he has among Christian conservatives, who have had friction with Mormons. They appear to be responding to his message that he is the true social conservative in the race despite criticism that as governor he raised taxes and was not tough enough on illegal immigrants.
Still, if Mr. Huckabee has emerged as a powerful force in the Republican political calculation, he still faces substantial hurdles as he heads toward the Iowa caucuses and, should he do well there, the nearly 25 contests that follow in the month ahead.
He confronts, in Mr. Romney, a wealthy opponent who has vastly outspent him and can continue doing so. He has a significantly smaller presence than Mr. Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Senator John McCain of Arizona in the crush of states that follow Iowa.
The Des Moines Register’s poll found that support for Mr. Huckabee had gone from 12 percent in October to 29 percent now. That and other recent polls suggest that Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Romney are in an extremely tight contest. That showing came despite the fact that Mr. Huckabee has been hugely outspent by Mr. Romney on television and has not campaigned in Iowa since Nov. 8.
Given the nature of the Iowa contest — a caucus, in which a campaign’s effectiveness at motivating voters is hard to measure in a poll — it is difficult to assess how the Jan. 3 results will be affected by poll results suggesting that a new contender is emerging from the pack.
While Mr. Romney has built up an extensive field operation, run methodically from his campaign headquarters outside Des Moines, Mr. Huckabee’s approach is more ad-hoc as he has sought to take advantage of religious and church networks to press his message.“Romney has a turn-out machine: no one is going to dispute that,” said Chuck Laudner, the executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. “What Huckabee has to rely on is that faith community, which is a ready-made machine: churches, home schoolers. Huckabee is getting in volunteers what Romney has to pay for. But there’s just no telling what it means until the results come in.”
Chip Saltzman, Mr. Huckabee’s national campaign manager, argued that loyal volunteers rather than paid workers would prove far more valuable. “The caucus activity is driven by volunteers and people who are passionate about their candidate who are willing to go out on a freezing night,” Mr. Saltzman said.
Mr. Huckabee and his aides said they had spent the past month, when not in Iowa, trying to position themselves should he have a strong Iowa showing: He has been raising money — $2 million last month, Mr. Saltzman said — and visiting South Carolina, New Hampshire and Florida, seeding the clouds there. He has hired about 25 new people and is about to open an office in Florida. He will soon begin advertising, though very modestly, in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Mr. Huckabee has yet to send a mailing, broadcast a television advertisement or buy significant radio time in New Hampshire, South Carolina or any of the major states that will vote soon after Iowa does. In New Hampshire, the state chairman, Fergus Cullen, said Sunday that Mr. Huckabee’s organization trails those of Mr. Romney, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain.
Past campaigns have shown that winning the Iowa caucus is not always a harbinger of winning the nomination. And Iowa, given its heavy Christian conservative base, is a particularly amenable state for Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister with ties to the religious community.
Mr. Huckabee’s strategy is hardly a new one: he is relying on the assumption that a win in Iowa would be rewarded with a burst of contributions and publicity, and would rally conservatives who have declined to support him because they thought he could not win.
Yet there are big differences between this election and past ones that clearly cut against the kind of underdog campaign Mr. Huckabee is embracing. There are only five days between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, leaving little time for Mr. Huckabee to capitalize on an Iowa victory in terms of collecting money or publicity, And after that, Mr. Huckabee would face an onslaught of contests in expensive states.
Asked if a strong Iowa showing could do in 2008 what it has done in other years, Mr. Huckabee responded: “We’ll sure find out.”
Should he not succeed, Mr. Huckabee could well be remembered as the victim of an accelerated nominating calendar that rewards candidates with money or fame, neither of which Mr. Huckabee can claim, and does not allow the time for a little-known candidacy to catch fire.
Mr. Cullen, the New Hampshire chairman, said he was impressed by Mr. Huckabee’s spirit and by the intensity of the crowds he saw with the candidate this weekend.
But asked if he thought that Mr. Huckabee could win in New Hampshire simply by virtue of winning Iowa, he said: “I don’t. Romney has a very strong organization here.”
In South Carolina, the Republican state chairman, Katon Dawson, said Mr. Huckabee had a powerful natural appeal in his state as a Southerner and a Baptist minister. But he said it would be hard for him to win there or elsewhere without money.
“George Bush spent a lot of money in South Carolina to get the nomination,” he said, referring to the 2000 campaign. “I don’t think it’s possible to win without a major television buy.”
That is a view that was not disputed even by Mr. Huckabee’s supporters. “Can he win without money?” said David M. Beasley, the former governor of South Carolina and one of Mr. Huckabee’s most prominent supporters there. “Yeah, he can. Is it hard? Yeah.”
Beyond that, many of Mr. Huckabee’s supporters said they believed they were entering treacherous waters, concerned that they would not have the money to finance television advertisements to respond to attacks that have already begun — particularly on his record on tax cuts and immigration.
Mr. Huckabee professed not to be concerned, saying he had endured much worse in Arkansas. “It’s not something I’m sitting around panicking about,” he said.
“I’ve been through worse,” he said, recalling elections in Arkansas when he took on Democrats from the Clinton camp. “This is patty-cake compared to what that’s like.”