Seven months ago, a stunned and uncharacteristically speechless Mike Huckabee, crushed by ecstatic supporters, stumbled out of an Iowa arena and into his improbably durable presidential run.
Inside the Hilton Coliseum in Ames, the former Arkansas governor had just finished a surprising second to Mitt Romney in the state GOP's presidential straw poll. Vastly outspent and hopelessly outmanned at the massive event, he parlayed his "victory" (Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani didn't compete), his appeal to Christian conservatives, and his knack for funny one-liners into national exposure. His underdog status became his rallying cry.
And that stifling summer day, during which Huckabee jammed with his band "Capitol Offense" and served up watermelon from his hometown of Hope, Ark., set the tone for a perpetually broke campaign that would stun the Republican establishment. In early January, Huckabee easily won Iowa's first-in-the nation presidential caucuses, upending Romney's win-early strategy. He then took seven more contests before his quixotic journey came to an end last night in Texas, when Sen. John McCain, who fought his own epic battle back from the brink, hit the magic delegate number needed to secure the Republican nomination.
"I fought the good fight," Huckabee told supporters, quoting the writings of the Apostle Paul. "I've finished the race, and I've kept the faith."
In the process, the former Baptist minister not only promoted the issues of Republican evangelicals but helped turn a slew of well-funded sure things into also-rans. Former Massachusetts Governor Romney, who spent more than $105 million (including a good chunk of his own fortune), dropped out last month. Giuliani, despite his fame as New York City's mayor during 9/11 and a $63.9 million effort, failed to yield a single delegate. And Fred Thompson, the actor and former senator who was hailed as a potential conservative savior, raised $23.6 million for his campaign that died before it started.
Huckabee, who raised a total of $12.9 million—including $3.9 million last month, had some national party leaders worried that his continued presence in the race would make it more difficult for McCain, who many hard-right conservatives find unpalatable, to unify fractured Republicans. But Huckabee found that attitude downright irritating—it's "pathetic," he told U.S. News, that the party couldn't handle a little competition "in the semifinals."
Through the past several months, however, Huckabee has avoided directly criticizing McCain, and last night he congratulated the party's new leader for having run "an honorable campaign because he's an honorable man."
What now for Huckabee, who has clearly made great strides in establishing himself as a national presence, a darling of social conservatives, and a potential candidate in a future presidential race? (He grabbed more than 30 percent of the vote in yesterday's primary in Texas, where the Republican Party is dominated by social conservatives, despite the fact that race was already in McCain's pocket.)
A man without a personal fortune or a job, Huckabee needs to earn a living—he famously left the campaign trail recently to give a paid speech in the Cayman Islands. Will he return to Arkansas and run for the U.S. Senate, as some have suggested? Hit the lecture circuit? Host a television show? He wants a spot at the party's national convention in Minneapolis, but earlier suggestions that he might join McCain's ticket as a vice presidential candidate seem a thing of the past.
Whatever happens, his odyssey from Iowa in August to Texas in March will ensure that the country will pay attention. "What a journey," Huckabee said last night. "A journey of a lifetime."