GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee failed to fill much more than half of a ballroom at the Concourse Hotel Wednesday morning, calming Madison Fire Department concerns about press risers blocking too many exits.
The only thing more unimpressive than the turnout was the applause Huckabee met following his introduction by Tim Michels, a U.S. Senate wannabe who ran against Russ Feingold in 2004. A sizable portion of the crowd seemed composed of curious liberals who commingled with a smattering of mailing-list stalwarts and Republican fanboys (and girls). The ordained Southern Baptist minister received a tepid reception.
Huckabee was visiting Madison in hopes of whipping up a miracle storm of support in his continued, but improbable, effort to beat Sen. John McCain not only in Wisconsin's Tuesday primary, but in the race for the GOP nomination. Huckabee trails McCain by a near insurmountable number of delegates going into next week's vote.
McCain increasingly sees Huckabee as a pest, expressing this week that he wished Huckabee would drop out of the race. Former GOP candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney endorsed McCain early Wednesday afternoon, putting Huckabee's long-shot bid in further peril.
However, the former Arkansas governor today reiterated his case for continuing the race, saying, "We don't kneel down in the third quarter. We fight to the finish."
Huckabee began his speech by joking that Madison is the conservative bastion of Wisconsin. "We wondered if anybody would show up," he said.
He called McCain a good and decent man, but distanced himself from Beltway politics, telling his audience that he was the most conservative Republican they'd meet. "Senators don't have to make things work," he said, touting his 10 years of experience as Arkansas governor. "They just have to vote on things every few years."
Huckabee promised to protect the sanctity of life (i.e., end abortion and stem-cell research), and to stand up for small business owners and working families by enforcing international trade agreements and abolishing the IRS. At one point, he symbolically tore a 1040 tax form in two. "I'll make April 15 just another lovely spring day."
The candidate shared lots of anecdotes, pandering to Wisconsinites with a tale about how he once, on a private tour of Lambeau Field, asked his escort if he could sing the National Anthem on the 50-yard line. Huckabee was in Green Bay in 2004 stumping for incumbent president George W. Bush when he visited the empty stadium.
Huckabee said his crusade is not about winning, rather it's about staying true to his convictions, a value he believes McCain lacks. He half-jokingly urged his supporters to discourage McCain's supporters from voting on Tuesday. "But those supporting me, you get out there and vote," he said. "Don't let anything stop you."
Huckabee, while passionate, was unconvincing. Near the end of his speech, he called Leroy, a local 14-year-old who has made 1,000 phone calls on his behalf, to the stage. Huckabee realized he'd gotten the name wrong when Leroy failed to appear. He then called for Louis, who also failed to appear. Then, pulling a cue card from his pocket, called Leon Gander to the stage.
Leon Gander, Huckabee noted, isn't even old enough to vote, yet he'd made 1,000 phone calls. Patting Leon Gander on the back, Huckabee challenged the audience to make 100 phone calls before Tuesday's vote. "That is my challenge to you," said the candidate.