(CNN) — Until this week, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had not run a single ad in Michigan, and had no paid staffers in the state.
He did not have a campaign office. He had not sent out a single piece of direct mail.
Meanwhile, his rival Mitt Romney — who announced after his second-place New Hampshire showing that Michigan was his top priority — has run nearly $3 million dollars worth of television ads in Michigan.
And John McCain, fresh off his New Hampshire win — and with the backing of two of the state’s largest papers, the Detroit News and the Detroit Free-Press — has been keeping pace in recent polls with the well-funded Romney effort.
“We laid the groundwork,” says Gary Glenn, one of the leaders of the movement. “The fact that he’s even in a position to threaten Mitt Romney in his native state is a real statement to the depth of support he has here.”
Huckabee’s been riding a months-long wave of good news in Michigan. Just before Labor Day, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers made him their pick in his party’s presidential primary — a rare nod to a GOP candidate that might not mean much in other Republican contests, but carries some weight in this heavily unionized state.
The Fair Tax movement — which has given Huckabee its enthusiastic backing — announced a major political push in Michigan in 2008, looking to get an anti-tax measure on the ballot this fall.
LaMar Lemmons, the Detroit state representative who helped organize the successful Democratic crossover effort that helped McCain beat Bush here in 2000, recently launched Democrats for Huckabee — the sort of group that can make a real difference in a state where the lack of party registration allows for large-scale crossover voting.
The move may have an exaggerated impact this cycle, since the national party penalized the state party for moving up its primary and most of the major Democratic contenders pulled their names from the ballot.
And this week, Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist is making a swing through the state to tell Republican primary voters upset over illegal immigration to support Huckabee, making appearances in working-class cities from Flint and Saginaw to Kalamazoo.
But as in Iowa, the biggest secret to Huckabee’s Michigan success seems to be his depth of support among evangelical Christians. Typically, somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of Michigan’s Republican primary voters are self-identified evangelicals. A few weeks ago, a Detroit News survey found that number may be as high as 40 percent this year.
So pro-Huckabee organizers say they are focusing their entire effort on turning out evangelical church goers. They plan to call every evangelical pastor in the state over the next few days. Those ministers can’t endorse any candidate from the pulpit — but they can tell their parishioners that “it’s their Christian duty,” to turn out on primary day, said Glenn. “And we know who they’ll be voting for.”
To help drive that message home, thousands of volunteers will be dropping leaflets and waving signs in church parking lots across Michigan this Sunday. Glenn says there will also be several news conferences across the state through the January 15 vote featuring groups of pastors announcing their personal support for Huckabee, an organized wave of callers into Michigan’s Christian radio stations, and phone trees targeting the state’s largest churches from within.
Glenn is a prime example of the sort of well-connected activist that has been essential to Huckabee’s success. The president of Michigan’s chapter of Don Wildmon’s American Family Association, he co-wrote the state’s successful anti-gay marriage amendment, which drew close to 60 percent of the vote in 2004. That effort also updated his already-packed addressbook with a new group of politically-savvy conservative Christian contacts eager to assist a presidential candidate who backed his own state’s version of that measure.
Glenn also represents another key demographic in the Huckabee grassroots army — home schoolers, mostly Christian conservatives, who have overwhelmingly supported the former governor. In Michigan, the group is politically active, and large, with thousands attending the community’s annual state convention.
“We don’t have to persuade them to vote, we just have to get them to turn up,” Glenn said Thursday, pointing to their Iowa counterparts’ role in Huckabee’s victory there. “Why mess with a winning formula?”