After his disappointing showing in South Carolina, Mike Huckabee was supposed to be a spent force. The former Arkansas governor’s triumph in the Iowa caucuses would be relegated to the history books and deemed no more significant than evangelist Pat Robertson’s besting George H.W. Bush in the Hawkeye State two decades before.
But Huckabee stormed back into the race Tuesday with wins not just in his home state of Arkansas but also in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia. He ran strongly in Missouri as well, complicating the race for the Republican nomination all over again.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who had expected to emerge from Super Tuesday with the nomination virtually locked up, was left facing still more questions about his inability to win in deep red Republican states. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was left wondering why he could not win the conservative votes McCain was losing.
“Sometimes one small, smooth stone is more effective than a suit of armor,” Huckabee told cheering supporters in Little Rock. “We’re still on our feet, and much to the amazement of many, we’re getting there, folks, we’re getting there.”
Over the past weeks, Romney has said repeatedly that Huckabee was more a nuisance then a threat, a candidate who should drop out of the race and leave it to the only two Republicans who could reasonably claim to be contenders for the nomination.
Huckabee focused his limited resources almost exclusively on the Southeast, with old-fashioned, retail politicking. He presented himself as the only true social conservative in the race, jabbing at Romney as a flip-flopper as he pulled conservatives disenchanted with McCain into his orbit.
Romney supporters and aides continued to show Huckabee little respect despite the Super Tuesday victories.
Huckabee has few remaining states where the demographics favor him – only Mississippi is waiting to vote in the Deep South.
“He deserves credit for hanging in there and being the winsome personality he’s been. We’ve all enjoyed him,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a Romney backer. “But everybody knows Mike is not going to be in the final two. That hasn’t changed.”
Indeed, to Romney aides, Huckabee’s victories were simply an ominous sign for McCain, who continues to lose the vote of self-described conservatives.
But McCain aides and Republican strategists saw Huckabee’s surprising strength as the end of the line for Romney, who has been unable to turn anti-McCain sentiments to his favor. After his performance Tuesday, Huckabee will stay in the race and will continue to take votes from the Republican Party’s anti-McCain right wing, said Alex Vogel, a GOP strategist not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns.
“If Huckabee really won Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, West Virginia and Tennessee, he has effectively sealed off the right flank from Romney,” Vogel said.