Trailing Romney, Huckabee goes door to door seeking gains in N.H.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — A New Hampshire homemaker preparing to host GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee for a “coffee and conversation” two Saturdays ago bought enough food for a hundred friends and neighbors.

But more than 200 showed up to meet the former Arkansas governor. The woman, Shannon McGinley, 37, said her spacious home in Bedford, N.H., was so packed that she was restricted to a 4-by-4 space in the kitchen for the length of the party, and had to jump on the table at one point to address the crowd.

“It was like a fraternity party,” she said, though with coffee being served instead of beer.

Huckabee is gaining ground with voters in New Hampshire, who are curious about his meteoric rise in other early states and in the national polls. Yet the polls have not detected a surge in the Granite State, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sits on a solid lead.

Huckabee has only a skeletal staff in New Hampshire and scant funds for television ads as Iowa drains the bulk of his resources. With only days to leverage momentum from a potential Jan. 3 victory over Romney in the Iowa caucuses before New Hampshire votes on Jan. 8, Huckabee is relying on people like McGinley, a self-described Catholic voter, to propel his candidacy.

“He’s got very few assets on the ground here. If there’s going to be a surge, it’s going to have to be neighbors talking to other neighbors,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“Word of mouth helps relatively more in New Hampshire than in other states,” said Scala, noting New Hampshire’s population of 1.3 million.

Yet a Huckabee win in the state would still be a “real stunner,” Scala said, due to Romney’s solid lead in the polls and the existence in New Hampshire of far fewer religious voters, who make up the core of Huckabee’s support in Iowa. Only about a third of the Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire goes to church every week.

Still, one member of McGinley’s church, Sheilagh Shiepe, 42, told The Hill at a Bedford town hall event Friday for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that seeing Huckabee at the party had made him one of her top choices in the race. “I was impressed with how intelligent he was,” she said, adding that she is still considering voting for McCain or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Among the state’s likely primary voters, Romney enjoys a 25 percent to 17 percent lead over his closest rival, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, according to a new MSNBC/McClatchy poll. Huckabee trails in fourth place, behind McCain, with the support of 11 percent of likely primary-goers.

By contrast, Huckabee leads Romney 32 percent to 20 in Iowa and has edged ahead of Giuliani, 20 percent to 17, in South Carolina, the poll found.

After seeing his lead collapse in Iowa, Romney cannot afford to lose in New Hampshire, analysts say. The campaign is now pumping a quarter-million dollars a week into the local television station to air ads. By contrast, the Huckabee campaign will air its first TV ads this week, at a cost of $36,600.

The Romney campaign is seizing on Huckabee’s record on taxes, a historically potent issue in the state’s primary. “He raised taxes on everything while he was governor. That’s just not going to fly in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state,” Romney’s New Hampshire communications director, Craig Stevens, said.

Though Huckabee downplays his religious credentials when speaking in the Granite State, he is most likely to nab the support of frequent churchgoers, opposed to abortion and gay marriage. “People who are social conservatives are getting behind him, they really are,” Shiepe said.

A mother of four who voted for evangelical Christian Gary Bauer in the 2000 primary, McGinley says she ultimately rejected Romney because she doubted the sincerity of his conversion on the issue of abortion.

“It doesn’t seem genuine to me because he has all these exceptions you could drive a truck through,” she said, citing Romney’s opposition to abortion except in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.

McGinley, who said she had a friend conceived of rape, argued, “It’s not right that a child would get capital punishment for the crime of the father.”

After considering Romney for months, she finally slapped a Huckabee sticker on her car a few weeks ago, disappointing her close friend, Liz Feren, 37, who is the co-chairwoman of the Romney campaign for Merrimack County.

Feren doubts that Huckabee could rally enough support from the entire GOP base to beat the Democratic nominee, citing his record on taxes and his perceived weakness among some voters on foreign policy and national security matters. She explained, “Unlike Shannon, my goal in this is to win. I really want to win.”

McGinley’s party on Dec. 1, however, instantly produced at least a couple converts to the Huckabee camp.

Writing in an e-mail within hours of the event, a woman who couldn’t attend told McGinley that a mutual friend had already “filled her in” on the party, giving her a Huckabee lawn sign and a campaign sticker, which the woman promptly slapped on her car.

She also wrote that her husband had called the Huckabee campaign office to request another yard sign for the couple’s rental property. “Because of you — he has 2 more votes!” she exclaimed in the e-mail.

Another friend wrote McGinley the next day: “I had a great time and I’m thinking of changing my vote.”