Time for Huckabee to rethink bid

Last February, Mike Huckabee pledged himself to six more months of campaigning, but promised that he’d “rethink his candidacy” if he couldn’t escape second-tier status. Well, it’s now October and a good time for some serious pondering of that pledge. Huckabee has admittedly made genuine progress, particularly in Iowa caucus polls where he scores in the low double-digits. And his recent Values Voters straw poll showing was impressive. But Huckabee is still garnering only 4 to 7 percent of the GOP vote in national polls. In the grand scheme of things, he’s still not in the first tier.

Huckabee’s micro-surge couldn’t have come at a worse time for the conservative movement. Just when social conservatives and evangelical Christians desperately need to coalesce behind a single viable Republican candidate, the former Arkansas governor shows some signs of mounting a modest rally, delaying the conservative unity needed to thwart moderate Rudy Giuliani’s quest for the nomination. Huckabee is surging too late and in too few places to make a real difference in this contest, except as a spoiler.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on Huckabee. To the contrary, I think he seems like a good man with solidly conservative values. Personally, he strikes me as a delightful fellow. Last November, I commended Huckabee in this very space: “If you are looking for better odds in 2008,” I wrote, “think about someone like outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a rising star in conservative Republican circles.” But that was almost a year ago. Where has he been and what has he done since? Has he demonstrated that he’s presidential timber?

Huckabee’s presidential campaign has had plenty of chances to catch fire. And it hasn’t. That’s an objective reality. After Iowa, the most optimistic (or delusional) scenario is a weak third-place finish in a state or two. That would have been encouraging even six months ago when he was even farther back in the pack. But coming so close to the actual balloting, it’s too little, too late.

Even if Huckabee wins the Iowa caucuses, he doesn’t have the campaign infrastructure or resources to exploit that unlikely accomplishment. It would be an unsustainable and gimmicky victory, like Appalachian State’s football team beating mighty Michigan only to lose to tiny Wofford three weeks later.

Unfortunately, a lot of party and religious leaders share some culpability for Huckabee’s interloper status. They have held back from embracing one of the more serious conservatives — either Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney — thereby practically gift-wrapping the nomination for Rudy Giuliani. In particular, too many evangelical leaders have played too hard-to-get, making it practically impossible for any of the serious conservative candidates to catch up to Giuliani. This coy behavior has made it possible for Huckabee to sustain the illusion that he’s as viable as Thompson or Romney.

An interesting irony of this situation is that the religious wing of the party has ostensibly abandoned one of their own. As Dick Morris recently noted, Huckabee should be “the last survivor in the elimination tournament of the Christian right.” But that’s not happening. Dr. James Dobson and others ignore Huckabee. As distasteful as it may be, even social conservatives must acknowledge a Darwinian quality to presidential politics; it is indeed the “survival of the fittest.” Mike Huckabee may be physically fit, but he’s not got enough left in the tank to finish this game a winner.

By quitting now, Huckabee would leave on a high note and set himself up for a leadership role in the party and conservative movement. He could be a kingmaker with his endorsement of a first-tier candidate. But if he keeps on playing, he’ll soon be just another sad loser in the casino of presidential politics.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.