Slowly, Huckabee draws supporters

By JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writer
Published January 24, 2008

FORT LAUDERDALE -- He pledges to hang a sign on the headquarters of the IRS that says "going out of business."

He wants to ensure military veterans returning from overseas don't wait for benefits promised to them, like they're "waiting for a doughnut from a bakery."

But first, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee wants to debunk "pretty crazy rumors" that he's pulling out of Florida.

"Well, it doesn't look like it to me," Huckabee said over a chorus of "We like Mike!"

About 200 supporters greeted Huckabee in a Fort Lauderdale jet hangar late Wednesday, his first public return to South Florida since the primary cycle started.

Huckabee is tied for third place with Rudy Giuliani at 15 percent of likely Republican voters, according to a new St. Petersburg Times poll. In early January polls of Florida voters, Huckabee was in single digits.

"He's tied with America's mayor who has staked his entire political future on his performance in Florida," said pollster Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Co.

Earlier this week, Huckabee suggested he might pull back in Florida to focus on the Feb. 5 primary states. He cut some staff, although many continue to work without pay. He continues to rely on a vast grass roots network that is making hundreds of phone calls and canvassing neighborhoods in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, said Rodney Rogers, Miami-Dade County volunteer chief.

Experts agree Huckabee is not necessarily done if he loses here, especially if he can capture Florida's evangelical vote and beat Giuliani.

"He's not likely to win Florida,but he has the chance to do very well with a group of voters who have bedeviled pollsters in the past, especially if he gets a strong church turnout," said Tom Eldon of Schroth, Eldon & Associates, a polling company that primarily works for Democrats.

Among Republican voters, 40 percent said Huckabee represented their values and had strong moral character, two qualities of presidential leadership the poll tested. Huckabee's score on both was by far the highest of all the GOP candidates.

Panhandle push

Also, Huckabee leads among Florida Republicans ages 18 to 34, the pollsters pointed out.

Huckabee's strongest support comes from Florida's most conservative region, the Panhandle, according to the Times poll. A solid 28 percent of North Florida Republicans say they're likely to vote for Huckabee, compared with 22 percent for John McCain and 20 percent for Mitt Romney.

Conway pointed out that the Panhandle is most representative of the South, signaling Huckabee could do well in states like Georgia and Arkansas, which vote Feb. 5.

"The lesson here is Huckabee is the only bona fide Southerner," Conway said. "Why get out of the race when you still have Southern state contests?"

North Florida Republicans have played an important strategic role in winning the state because they're the most dependable when it comes to turnout on Election Day. However, Eldon pointed out that the property tax amendment, which also is on the ballot, may turn out more South Floridians, because they're harder hit by escalating property taxes. Despite a strong grass roots presence in South Florida, Huckabee fares worse in polls there.

Still, many drove through drenching rain to greet him when he arrived 30 minutes late for a rally at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.

Several of his supporters wore self-created, blue Mike Huckabee T-shirts. Many produce their own campaign literature and cheer him on street corners -- all without help from the national campaign.

"Basically we've been out here campaigning for Mike by spending our own money," said Diana Sienkiewicz, a 38-year-old mother from Pompano Beach who works in seafood sales. "He's that good."

Even though Huckabee has struggled for organization as well as money to fund television ads, supporters say they're convincedhe'll win Florida on Tuesday. "Commercials? We don't need no stinking commercials," said state Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami. "We've got grass roots!"