Analysis: The Huckabee primary
Michael Farris, a prominent home-schooling advocate and church-group leader who helped power Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise in 2008, is a man in demand by the 2012 Republican presidential field.
Both Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty are in hot pursuit, eager to capture Farris's support and some of the momentum that propelled Huckabee to a second-place finish in the Ames straw poll, which sparked the former Arkansas governor's campaign to life and spurred him on to a surprise win in the Iowa caucuses.
For all the calls and overtures Farris has received, he says he still can't make up his mind which candidate to back.
'It was easy for me last time - Huckabee was the only one who shared the principles I believe in,' Farris said. 'Here several people really share my views - maybe not 100 percent, but 95 percent-plus.'
In 2008, Huckabee's claim to the evangelical vote was unmatched, with his personality and decade as a Southern governor and his credentials as a former Baptist preacher with a strong conservative record in office.
This time around, many of the 2012 candidates are centering their campaigns on the Huckabee pitch: Christian, anti-abortion, small government, strict Constitutionalism.
Waging an intense pre-campaign to edge out Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidates have focused their efforts on the operatives, grassroots activists and religious leaders that made Huckabee a serious contender for the Republican nomination.
It's a battle that the Huckabee supporters fear could end with them all losing, if the conservative evangelical base gets splintered between all the candidates instead of coalescing behind one Romney alternative.
Bob Vander Plaats, Huckabee's Iowa state chair in 2008 and who now leads religious conservative group The Family Leader, said: 'There's no doubt all the candidates are going after Huckabee's base. The fear is that they divide up [that] base among themselves and Romney becomes the outlier and Romney coalesces other support and walks out of Iowa the winner.'
Pawlenty and Bachmann have led the charge, beginning with searching phone calls from campaign staff to track back to the Huckabee inner circle and key players, then moving to personally court the activists and operatives.
Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have all zeroed in. Even Jon Huntsman's gotten Huckabee's South Carolina state campaign chairman, Mike Campbell.
In New Hampshire, Pawlenty picked up Huckabee's co-chair Cliff Hurst, plus four key state activists. In Iowa, the former Minnesota governor hired former Iowa campaign manager Eric Woolson and former field coordinator Aubrie Johnson - whom Pawlenty pitched directly himself, after having her talk with an unaffiliated Minnesota anti-abortion group to vouch for his record.
But it was Pawlenty's hire this week of Huckabee's daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as his new senior political advisor that turned the most heads - even if she didn't come with her husband, Bryan Sanders, an operative who met Sarah on her dad's campaign in 2008, or the endorsement of Huckabee himself.
'Having Sarah Huckabee on with Pawlenty is a big deal,' said Susan Geddes, Huckabee's 2008 grassroots director, who has been courted by every campaign except Gingrich and Romney. 'I have heard a few people say, 'Oh, I wonder what that means,' and they're looking at Pawlenty again.'
Still, among operatives, Bachmann has the lead - her two top national aides, director Ed Rollins and press secretary Alice Stewart, are Huckabee veterans, and in Iowa, she's hired Wes Enos, Huckabee's state political director, as well as Barbara Heki, who after the 2008 campaign led the charge to oust state supreme court judges who green-lighted same-sex marriage. Plus, she's got state Sen. Kent Sorenson on board, providing major inroads to the local base.
More than just paid operatives, the candidates are pursuing social conservative coalitions like Concerned Women for America and Vision America, a group led by former Texas pastor Rick Scarborough, which has recruited thousands of 'patriot pastors' to promote GOP candidates. They're not spending as much time pursuing big donors - but Huckabee's power was always more about grassroots motivation than money.
Rather than explicitly trying to cast themselves as Huckabee's heir, the candidates generally refer back to the same themes that are in their stump speeches, and are just as reluctant to criticize each other in private as they are in public.
'Their approach to me wasn't tearing down someone else to build up themselves,' said former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a 2008 Huckabee backer who's also still uncommitted for 2012, reflecting on his meetings with Santorum and Huntsman.
Unofficially, the battle is much fiercer, said Steve Deace, a former conservative radio host in Des Moines who publicly backed Huckabee in 2008 and used his show to thrash Romney on a daily basis. This presidential cycle, Deace said, he's just plain frustrated with the campaigns' roundabout attempts to win his influence.
'I get people from campaigns emailing me opposition research on other candidates all the time,' he said. 'They want guys like me to go out there and tell people. Well, I'm not going to do that this time. They've got to do that themselves. If you can't stand up to your primary opponents, you won't be able to stand up to Barack Obama.'
Huckabee's own intentions are hard to read. Pawlenty, Cain, Santorum, Gingrich and Bachmann have all been guests on his Fox News show, and he's been generally positive about them all. The guitar-playing host has even jammed with Rep. Thad McCotter, who launched a presidential campaign himself last week that's counting in large part on the support of Christian conservatives. Though he could probably coalesce his old support behind one candidate and anoint a clear Romney alternative through an endorsement, the former governor has so far declined to do so.
'He's kind of pledged to be neutral, but I think if he believes his endorsement might help, I think he'd go with it,' said Vander Plaats.
Vander Plaats is holding off on backing someone himself, but plans to make an endorsement as early as Nov. 20 - the day after The Family Leader's presidential debate. While that will likely influence many of the other former Huckabee supporters, Vander Plaats says the staff will be free to work for whichever candidate they want.
He's just concerned what will happen if they can't all agree.
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