By Quint Forgey, Katie Gagliano and Brett Houser
Speaking before roughly 100 students, media and Iowa voters at the countrified Machine Shed Restaurant in Urbandale on Sunday afternoon, presidential contender Mike Huckabee compared the Republican primaries and caucuses to the NCAA March Madness tournament.
“If you lose an early game, you are going home,” he said, highlighting the dire, dodgy straits of his current campaign in the Hawkeye State.
It was a crowd not unlike one he would have stumped for during his White House bid eight years ago – perhaps only smaller and less enthusiastic.
Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, is currently polling at an average of only 2.6 points in the state. He sits behind the likes of Iowa leader Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, both candidates seeking to capitalize on the evangelical constituency that rallied steadfastly around the former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister two cycles ago.
Jerry Van Wyk, 72, of Pella, identifies as an evangelical and serves as Marion County Chairman for Huckabee’s campaign.
Wyk is the type of ardent Christian conservative Huckabee will be counting on to make a showing in the caucus – a voter who knows Iowa politics and believes the governor still has a slim but distinct shot to topple the fresh blood in the race.
“In 2008, Santorum was going nowhere 20 days ahead,” Wyk said of the former Pennsylvania senator who narrowly won Iowa in 2012 and is making another bid for the presidency in the current cycle. “At church this morning, our county chairman said he was still undecided. It’s a broad and close field. For evangelicals, there’s a lot of good choices.”
Huckabee told an Iowa radio host in December that if he did not place within the top three in the caucuses, he would “realistically” be forced to suspend his campaign. John Strong, who has lived in Iowa for the past 30 years, is not sure Huckabee will meet such expectations.
A 74-year-old retired Vietnam veteran stationed at the SHAPE Belgium NATO base in the ’60s, Strong caucused for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. He now describes himself as a Jeb Bush supporter.
“I’m not sure why he’s not doing better,” Strong said of Huckabee. “I think people may feel that he already had his time.”
Strong said Huckabee hasn’t changed much since the last time he ran for national office. The governor still holds the same far-right values Strong thinks could be damning in a general election matchup.
“I think Huckabee was very likeable and I think he could help heal the country,” Strong said. “But I think he’s perceived as too far right to win.”
In his remarks, Huckabee emphasized executive experience over certain “personalities” in the race, and reassured supporters of national polls’ volatility.
“The people of Washington and New York don’t have a clue what the people of Iowa will do until they do it,” he said. “What happens in Iowa the night of the caucus really changes things.”