BY MARC CAPUTO
With the presidential race tight and his cash even tighter, Mike Huckabee is embarking on a new ”unconventional” strategy that focuses on numerous Southern states and de-emphasizes Florida’s relative importance.While his opponents blanket Florida with ads and personal appearances, Huckabee is making a small step daily in Florida as well as states like Georgia to maximize his free news media coverage and keep expenses low.
And if Florida’s notoriously expensive media markets prove too costly and the polls show it’s pointless to hunt for the state’s winner-take-all votes, Huckabee acknowledged he’ll probably spend his cash — and time — elsewhere.
But not yet.
”Right now, our plan is to play ball in Florida. We think we can play here. Obviously, every single day is a new day in the campaign, especially when it’s as fluid as it is,” he told reporters. “I don’t want to abandon Florida yet because we have not come to the conclusion that Florida is out of play. We’ve had leads here when we didn’t have any reason to have leads here in Florida. So, I mean really, it was just astonishing to us. We were leading polls. We thought: We don’t have a single staff person, we don’t have a field operation here, we’re not running TV or radio and we’re leading polls.”
Precipitating the strange election season: The decision by Florida to move its GOP primary up to Jan. 29. That broke party rules. So the state Republicans were stripped of half the delegates who are chosen to officially nominate a presidential candidate at the national convention. Florida legislators said losing delegates wasn’t a problem because normally the race is long decided by then.
But now it appears the delegates do matter and the system, changed by Miami Rep. David Rivera and others, has backfired — save for the fact that Rivera now backs Huckabee, who is benefiting from the chaos.
”Our entire campaign,” he said, “has always operated in the unconventional.”
For instance, Huckabee campaigned Monday in the Democratic stronghold of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he attended a Martin Luther King Day service. He sat in the same pew as a fellow former Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, and later picked up the endorsement of a group of conservative black pastors who endorsed him and said they oppose abortion and gay marriage.
Huckabee was the only Republican presidential candidate in Atlanta on Monday, as John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani battled it out in Florida.
”I’ll bet you that we got more attention on my schedule today than any other Republicans did,” Huckabee said.
Huckabee leads in Georgia, which will have more delegates than Florida when it votes Feb. 5.
Huckabee will attend an anti-abortion rally Tuesday in Atlanta and then head to Gainesville for a fundraiser and a brief press appearance. On Wednesday, he’s planning to attend a Destin fundraiser, will attend a Boca Raton debate Thursday and an event in Miami Friday. He also plans to hit up Little Rock, Ark, as well as Tennessee.
“Everybody’s had to sort of adjust their game plan. Originally, the thing was: It’s all about the early states, getting the momentum, and that’s going to carry you through. Well, now, there’s no decisive winner in these early states, so everybody’s had some good times. Some medium times. And some bad times. Actually, we’ve probably not had what I call disasters.”
While some think Huckabee is just trying to strengthen his hand for a vice-presidential bid — perhaps with McCain — Huckabee said he isn’t thinking of that. “If you ever start thinking about what’s your fallback position, that’ll become your goal. So you don’t do it. And I don’t.”
It certainly wouldn’t be something he thinks about with Fred Thompson, who’s close to bowing out of the race. After he attacked Huckabee once, Huckabee suggested he was constipated. Also, a Romney-Huckabee ticket would be tough to see due to squabbles between the two campaigns.
On Monday, Romney’s campaign suggested Huckabee’s was conducting so-called ”push polls,” which are really telephone-based smears in the guise of legitimate surveys. Huckabee denied it and seemed exasperated when the allegation was brought to his attention.
”Romney, can that guy ever . . . ,” Huckabee said, stopping himself. “If we had that much money, we wouldn’t be spending it on that.”