For Huckabee, Santa Claus Is A Secret Weapon

In South Carolina, when Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, drops by churches, bake sales and house parties, he plays the role of Elijah, the prophet. welcome at the dinner table wherever he arrives. "I'm not coming to the evangelical movement," he says, "I'm coming from the evangelical movement."

In South Carolina, 40 percent of the Republican primary voting base are evangelical Christians. Of those evangelicals, about 75% are members of the Southern Baptist Convention
Since his surprise second-place showing at the Ames straw poll in August, Huckabee's campaign directors believe he has established a foothold among conservative Christian voters in Iowa and South Carolina. They point to his first place showing at a statewide straw poll conducted by the Palmetto State Family Council -- a poll for which the campaign did little overt organizing.

Former Gov. David Beasley is Huckabee's chief surrogate in the state. He calls the Palmetto straw poll win "as much of a natural phenomenon as there is in politics." Conservative networks, he said, lit up with e-mail chains before the vote, and Huckabee, "who can speak their language, can fire them up, and at the same time, maintain the viability to appeal to the rest of them" outpolled the field.

Huckabee's volunteer foot soldiers generally fall into one of three affinity groups. They're parents of home-schooled children; the national home school coalition's president is a campaign organization. Or they're supporters of the Fair Tax movement; hundreds helped Huckabee in Iowa. Or they're pastors themselves: very quietly (and legally), pastors for Huckabee are evangelizing circuits in Iowa and South Carolina.

Huckabee's campaign pays about two dozen staff members. One star is Sarah Huckabee, his national field director, and his daughter.

To climb in the polls, Huckabee faces several ladders. He needs to shake off the perception that he's really running for vice president. Such a notion serves as an artificial ceiling to him. He needs to raise money. He needs to find a way to persaude politically savvy voters than he can win.

I asked Huckabee's campaign manager, Chip Saltzman, whether he worried about his rivals spending millions on television ads in November and December, moves that would essentially blot out the rest of the field.

"Well, we have one great ally that everybody has discounted," Saltzman told me. "And that's Santa Claus."

No -- this isn't a religious thing. Saltzman concedes that Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani will saturate the airwaves in December. "But they can't get louder than Apple, or Chevy or Ford. There's going to be so much static between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and even trying to sending mail during Christmas is something that you really can't do."

Huckabee's advisers believe that the field is stagnant until then. They insist that he'll have saved enough money to run a solid flight of television ads in Iowa and South Carolina and maybe New Hampshire in December and early January.

Sen. Sam Brownback hopes there are four tickets out of Iowa, but Huckabee knows he needs to finish in the top three. "First class, business class or coach, we'd like a ticket," Saltzman jokes.

New Hampshire is tougher. State Sen. Bob Cleg, Huckabee's New Hampshire chairman, has dealt with a surge of curiosity and event requests since the straw poll. Cleg wants to see a "steady climb" between now and primary day. "Since the Iowa straw poll, we've done nothing but go up." Key to Huckabee's appeal in New Hampshire -- a state not known for its cultural conservatism -- is his resume. As Governor of Arkansas, Huckabee dealt with a Supreme Court that ordered changes to education funding, just like New Hampshire. "He's great on infrastructure, too, and on S-CHIP... people come to see him and know that he's already resolved some of the issues they're dealing," Cleg says.

Two potential pitfalls: demographic changes in South Carolina, where the less conservative areas have grown, where snowbirds have flown in from New York, where non Carolina voters are becoming more common. Rudy Giuliani, in fact, is counting on these changes. But Beasley dismisses them, "The electorate hasn't changed to any real degree since the 2000 elections."

And Fred Thompson. Cleg dismisses him with a quip: "Mike Huckabee can communicate. Fred Thompson can't."