(CBS) In the race for the Republican nomination, Super Tuesday is largely a showdown between front-runner John McCain and Mitt Romney, who is trying to pull off an upset by rallying the party’s conservative base.
Notably absent from this scenario is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, even though about a month ago he was riding high from a comfortable victory in the Iowa caucuses and was contending for the lead in many national polls.
But since then, while Huckabee’s campaign has endured no major gaffes, his role in the overall race has slowly been minimized, taking him from contender, to spoiler, to today, when few outside his own campaign believe he’ll be a factor in Tuesday’s outcome or beyond.
“He won't have a significant impact in most states,” said longtime GOP strategist Eddie Mahe. “I think he has a constituency in four or five of the states where that will come into play. There's a couple more of the southern states where he’ll have some support. I question whether that support is going to go beyond that because he's not present in the news, in the paid media.”
While Huckabee’s own campaign sounds far more optimistic in their assessment of the road ahead, even they are unwilling to tout their chances beyond the Bible Belt - the region of the South with a large population of socially conservative evangelical Christian voters, the same kind of voters who lifted Huckabee to victory in Iowa.
“We're in the race because we’re doing well in the early states, especially across the Bible Belt and we're in the race because we expect to win,” Huckabee spokeswoman Alice Stewart said. “Everyone's always said we weren't going to get through Iowa and we did. The money's coming in, the momentum's growing and we expect that to continue on Super Tuesday.”
Stewart said Huckabee continues to attract large crowds at his events and e-mails from supporters indicate his base is still strongly committed to his candidacy. But a broader look at the campaign, particularly the outcome in Florida’s Jan. 29 primary, in which Huckabee placed a distant third, indicates he has little hope of igniting a comeback on Super Tuesday or even keeping another candidate from securing the nomination.
His chief problem may be that evangelical Christian voters are no longer supporting him as a singular voting bloc. In CBS News exit polling of Florida primary voters, Huckabee, McCain and Romney were nearly tied among self-described evangelical voters. In fact, the only demographic group Huckabee clearly won were the 17 percent of voters who attended church more than once a week - but even among them, he did not win a majority.
It also appears unlikely that Huckabee could be a spoiler on Tuesday by siphoning socially conservative voters from Romney. The Florida exit polling showed that more than half of Huckabee voters said they’d back McCain if Huckabee weren’t on the ballot, even though the Arizona senator has never made issues like abortion and gay marriage a priority of his campaign and favors federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.
If Huckabee’s presence in the race is holding anyone back, it’s McCain, said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio.
“If Huckabee was out of the race it may only increase McCain’s margin,” he said. “Whereas if Romney were out of the race, it would leave things where it is.”
The candidates’ schedules illustrate that point further. While McCain has visited every region of the country, Huckabee is campaigning almost entirely in the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and his native Arkansas. Those states are mostly absent from those being visited by Romney, his wife, Ann, and his five sons in the days leading up to Feb. 5 - their schedule is focused on northern plain states, the Mountain West and California.
Romney is largely ceding the South to McCain and Huckabee, Mahe said, because voters there are still wary of his Mormon faith - even with Huckabee out of the race, he would be unlikely to win their support.
“Mormonism is just a significant barrier to a lot of those people,” he said, referring to southern conservatives. “I don't think Huckabee’s staying in the South impacts Romney particularly.”
While Romney’s campaign believes the candidate has largely addressed the subject of his faith, they’re among those who see the race as a two-man contest, believing that the outcome in Florida made many disregard Huckabee as a viable option.
“As far as Gov. Huckabee goes, I think it's very clear to Republican voters that this has come down to a two-man race, a choice between Gov. Romney and John McCain to lead the party and that's beginning to crystallize among voters and I think Gov. Huckabee will have less and less an influence over the course of the week,” Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said.
But regardless of the rationale in voters’ minds, the result is a contest where Huckabee may be nothing more than a regional candidate who doesn’t present a serious problem for either McCain or Romney - especially among the largest states up for grabs on Tuesday, all of which are outside the South and have gone mostly ignored by Huckabee.
“I think in the larger states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, and Illinois, I think McCain's likely margin is going to be greater than, say, what Huckabee is going to do,” Fabrizio said.
In those states, where evangelical Christians are far less influential than the South, Huckabee has been crippled by his populist views on economic policy and his criticisms of President Bush’s foreign policy - both of which run counter to opinions strongly held by most conservative voters, Mahe said.
“He's pro-life,” he said. “Beyond that there's no definition of conservative I'm aware of that he fits.”
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