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With little leadership, strangers gather to spread the word for Mike Huckabee.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 15, 2007
TAMPA - How Joanne Rush came to sit among complete strangers in a dimly lit room at Bonefish Grill is a story, she explains, of divine intervention.
The Realtor and evangelical Christian from Valrico happened to catch the recent presidential debate in St. Petersburg on TV and was struck by one of the men on stage. He seemed genuine and spoke convincingly of God.
"He really tugged at my heart," she said. "It's funny he's from Hope Arkansas, because he seems like the next hope for America."
Rush, 55, arrived at the restaurant Thursday evening for a "meet up" with more than 20 others mesmerized by Mike Huckabee, the Baptist minister turned politician who has exploded from obscurity in a crowded field of Republicans.
They were old and young - a trio of college students arrived just in time for the Bang Bang Shrimp - men and women, mostly newcomers to political activism, from as far away as Bradenton.
"The great thing is all these people came on their own," said Eric Rathburn, a 28-year-old civil engineer from Tampa, his shirt bearing an "I like Mike" button. "I don't know them from Adam. As they say, it's a Huckaboom!"
Rathburn, who organized the meeting via the Internet, expected a dozen people. Instead, 25 jammed a private room in the back of the restaurant on Henderson Boulevard. Bumper stickers and buttons dotted the white tablecloth.
Over the course of an hour and a half, the group got to know each other and discussed ways to spread the word in Florida, including forming teams that will make up to 50 calls per day to voters. Those who stuck around long enough were promised "tip-top secret stuff" about the campaign strategy.
Rathburn's online volunteer corps has more than doubled, to about 90, in the past two weeks. Similar groups have sprung up all over Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 29. Huckabee has virtually no campaign infrastructure, so the grass roots effort is critical.
Huckabeehad been climbing in the polls for weeks but took off after the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg on Nov. 28. He is behind Rudy Giuliani nationally but ahead in Iowa and South Carolina, critical early nominating states.
His ascendancy has come with increased scrutiny of his 10-year record as governor of Arkansas - a mixed bag that includes tax increases and support of a convicted rapist who murdered a woman after being paroled.
His new followers had not heard all the details, but they were not dissuaded, blaming the "liberal media" and arguing that anyone in office that long is bound to have baggage.
"Everything that they are criticizing him for is in this book," Rathburn said, holding up Huckabee's 2007 release From Hope to Higher Ground. "It's all there. He's explained it."
* * *
The meeting begins at 7 p.m. with a prayer.
"I thank you that we can support a man who follows you," intones Jed Kirby, 30, a developer from Tampa and Huckabee fundraiser. "I pray you will protect us tonight and just give us great ideas."
One by one, they go around the room for introductions. "I just like the fact he has God rolling off his tongue every time he speaks," said Roger Polanco, 20, a University of South Florida student.
"God loves Huckabee, and so do I," said Chuck Pynakker of Bradenton.
Some say they liked Huckabee's stance on taxes. He advocates the "fair tax," which would eliminate federal taxes on income and capital gains in favor of a 23 percent sales tax.
Others describe themselves as Fred Thompson orphans. The former U.S. senator was supposed to be riding this wave of Christian support, but he has not taken off.
"He doesn't have that fire and enthusiasm," said Jennifer Porter, 23, a legislative aide to state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "Huckabee is the answer."
* * *
Bob Hartland, 44, a financial adviser from Seminole, met Huckabee a few weeks ago at a fundraiser. "We left before he did," Hartland said, amazed how long the candidate spent with the crowd. "He's just like a normal guy, only he's running for president."
That's the story line Huckabee has eagerly pushed: from humble beginnings, funny, plays in a rock band.
But each day he remains near the top of the polls,potentially damaging details emerge.
As governor, he advocated an end to the trade embargo with Cuba. As a presidential candidate, he says he will veto any attempt to do so. Opponents call this flip-flopping.
Huckabee talks a lot about cutting taxes, but as governor he oversaw significant increases, which critics say raises doubts about his conservative credentials.
In 1996, Huckabee refused to authorize a Medicaid payment to cover an abortion for a retarded 15-year-old girl raped by her stepfather. Huckabee said he was adhering to the state Constitution, which authorizes public money for abortion only when a mother's life is endangered.
And there's the controversy surrounding the paroled rapist who murdered a woman. A parole board officially acted, but Huckabee supported the move.
Chris Gladu, 40, of Seffner said he's heard all the criticism and is not worried. "You're bound to have a screwup here and there. It's human.
"What mattersis I've found someone I can feel good about when I pull the lever. That's Mike Huckabee. He's the total package."
Alex Leary can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.
[Last modified December 14, 2007, 22:21:16]