Mike Huckabee, nursing a second third-place finish in northern states, looked ahead to the South where he hopes his Arkansas roots and Baptist background will put him back on a winning track in South Carolina.
“Ladies and gentlemen we’re going to win South Carolina,” he declared to supporters in Lexington.
Huckabee, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, has emerged from the back of the pack into an improbable contender. But he has since had to watch John McCain win New Hampshire and, now, Mitt Romney win Michigan. He is staking his new foothold on South Carolina’s social conservatives and religious voters as well as young working-class voters attracted to his economic populist message. South Carolina’s GOP primary is Saturday.
“We put a flag in the ground here Saturday,” he said of the state. “We’re going to make it real clear that the first-in-the-South primary is going to give their support to the first-in-the-South candidate.”
The state is more familiar ground for the folksy ordained Baptist minister. More than half of the state’s likely Republican voters are white evangelicals, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. It was those voters who carried Huckabee to victory in Iowa.
But there are no guarantees for the former Arkansas governor. According to exit polls in Michigan, about four in 10 voters in the GOP contest called themselves born-again or evangelical Christians, and they split about evenly between Huckabee and Romney. In New Hampshire last week, those voters split evenly among Huckabee, Romney and McCain.
'We're in it for the long haul'
Huckabee will compete for those voters in South Carolina with Romney and Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator and television actor who is staking the life of his campaign on a victory in South Carolina.
“Whatever it takes, we’re in it for the long haul,” Huckabee said on CNN.
As he did in Michigan, Huckabee was expected to rally pastors to help turn out their flocks. He draws heavy support from parents who home school their children, a small but actively engaged bloc that populate his cadre of volunteers. Huckabee repeated one of his favorite applause lines Tuesday, telling supporters, “Mothers and fathers raise better kids than governments do.”
Huckabee has drawn distinctions with his rivals over abortion and gay marriage by calling for constitutional amendments to ban both. Thompson and McCain oppose same-sex marriage but stop short of calling for a constitutional amendment. On abortion, Huckabee is alone in calling for a constitutional amendment.
“I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God,” Huckabee said Monday night in Warren, Mich. “And that’s what we need to do, is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards, rather than try to change God’s standards.”
Appeal to the working class
He also talked tough on immigration. Arriving Tuesday in Rock Hill, S.C., Huckabee called for suspending immigration from countries that sponsor or harbor terrorists, going further than any of his rivals in proposing to clamp down on immigration.
“I say we ought to put a hiatus on people who come in here ... if they come from countries that sponsor and harbor terrorists,” he said. “Let’s say, until you get your act in order, and we get our act in order, we’re not going to just let you keep coming and threaten the future and safety of America.”
His campaign quickly backtracked; Huckabee dropped the issue in his next speech, and an adviser, Jim Pinkerton, said Huckabee really meant he wants a “thorough review” of immigration problems.
He has appealed for working-class voters by saying he was the first among the Republican candidates to recognize economic hardships that many Americans face.
“If you spend some time listening to people you’re going to find that there’s a world of hurt out there in America,” he told his South Carolina supporters.
Huckabee trails his rivals in financing and was outspent by both Romney and Huckabee in Michigan. He spent about $480,000 in advertising in the state, compared to more than $2 million by Romney.