A charity function put me at lunch Friday in Conway with a group that included Lu Hardin and Gilbert Baker. These are probably the brightest lights in the state Republican Party. They're also among Mike Huckabee's closest allies in Arkansas.
Both had recently gone to South Carolina to help their man Mike. Hardin, the ubiquitous president of the University of Central Arkansas, also had been in New Hampshire. Baker, the uncommonly energetic state senator from Conway and former state Republican chairman, had traveled to Iowa to dispute Mitt Romney's criticisms of Huckabee's gubernatorial record.
The South Carolina Republican primary was the next day. Let me be clear: Lu and Gilbert did not say outright that everything was on the line for Huckabee.
But since we were having lunch with interested people who'd paid for the occasion — this from a silent auction to raise money for artistic endeavor in Conway — I took a shot at a candid synopsis of what they were all but saying. It was this: South Carolina would make or break Huckabee.
He hadn't won anything since Iowa. He'd lost Wyoming, New Hampshire and Michigan. He wasn't competing in Nevada. One smart-aleck blogger had called him “so two weeks ago,” and it was about to be three.
Losing streaks can't be tolerated in presidential politics. If Huckabee was to remain competitive, he simply had to win again, and soon. If he couldn't do it in a Southern state like South Carolina where roughly half the primary turnout would come out of the religious conservative base to which he had pandered — or, if you prefer, appealed — then he would be done.
But if he won, then he would get a big bump into Florida and then Super Duper Tuesday on Feb. 5. Believe it or not, he would then hold a 50 percent chance or better to be the Republican nominee for president.
That's only how big South Carolina was for Huckabee.
Hardin muttered, “I agree with that.” Baker didn't argue — about that, anyway. He did contend later that Huckabee would be helped after South Carolina if Fred Thompson dropped out, as surely Fred will.
Thompson will surely back John McCain, his friend. But, yes, he probably takes some conservative votes that Huckabee would otherwise get.
Actually, political analysts are beginning to size up the Republican race this way: McCain takes the moderates while Huckabee and Mitt Romney split the rural/religious conservatives and suburban/economic conservatives, thus dividing the right wing and effectively nominating McCain. It's a tidy construction unless Rudy Giuliani wins Florida, in which case you'll hear more about a brokered convention.
After lunch Gilbert hauled me over to UCA to tape a cable television show with him. It was a little small-time Hannity and Colmes kind of thing that Baker likes to call “Senate District 30 Report,” or some such. Republicans tend to be much more media-savvy than Democrats, it seems. Baker was not persuaded by my purely self-amusing contention that the show ought to be discontinued now that he has active Democratic opposition to his re-election.
We kind of got into it on this show. Gil thought I was saying that Huckabee was pretending to be religious, and was highly offended. I contended that I was meaning that Huckabee was ratcheting up his religious emphasis for political purposes, taking a component of his political essence and turning it into a newly intensified obsession.
So, anyway, we now know that Huckabee lost South Carolina. Is he done?
He's still right there in the thick of the delegate race, and, yes, there are several Southern states soon to be in play. But the fact is that he's gone flat after that one-night wonderment in Iowa. Momentum is a precious thing that's hard to regain.
Huckabee lost substantial numbers of South Carolina religious conservatives to McCain and Thompson. That's apparently because he couldn't close the deal by convincing these pewmates that he was a credible candidate outside the religious box.
It appears that Republicans may actually have enough sense to nominate, in McCain, the candidate who would have the best chance in November.
It's another of those abundant ironies. Conservatives obsess on illegal immigration; today their likeliest presidential nominee is tolerant and practical on the issue.