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In Atlanta, Huckabee Courts the South

By Perry Bacon Jr.
ATLANTA -- Targeting the South and Midwest in advance of the 21-state Feb. 5 GOP primary day, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee called for a constitutional amendment banning abortion at a rally on the steps of the Capitol here, saying simply overturing Roe v. Wade would not be enough.

"This is not a political issue, it is a moral issue," he told more than 300 people on this cold, rainy day. The event was put on by Georgia Right to Life, a antiabortion rights group whose political action committee has endorsed Huckabee, even though the National Right to Life backed former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson. "There cannot be a geographical distinction when it comes down to something that is either right or wrong. Abraham Lincoln said over 100 years ago that if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. And, ladies and gentlemen, let us say it, today it is wrong to take the life of an unborn child."

On the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that invalidated abortion bans, the former governor repeated his support for ending abortion through a constitutional amendment, a position that divides his top rivals for the GOP nomination. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney also backs it, but Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani do not.

Huckabee's trip here indicates a shift in strategy. While he plans to spend the weekend in Florida competing against his rivals for the GOP nomination, campaign chairman Ed Rollins said Huckabee will also make more stops in Georgia and potentially other Southern states even before Jan. 29, when Florida votes. While his rivals duke it out in Florida, Huckabee's campaign hopes he can become the Southern candidate in the race on Feb. 5, capturing wins on that mega-primary day in Tennessee, West Virginia and Alabama, along with his home state of Arkansas and neighboring Missouri. Rollins said the campaign would not run ads on broadcast television in Florida, but might instead air them in the other states.

"This is a four-way race," he emphasized when asked if Huckabee still had a chance at the nomination.

For Huckabee, the Georgia stop came as his campaign looked for ways to stay in the GOP nomination contest following defeat in South Carolina, where it had focused much of its time and resources. After his surprising win in Iowa, Huckabee lost the next three contested primaries, and has shown little ability to expand his support beyond a core of conservative evangelical Christians who have backed him.

With a decreasing number of reporters covering him, Huckabee, who has courted the press aggressively throughout his run to make up for his lack of money to pay for television commercials, decided to stop arranging transportation for the reporters following him (news organizations pay back the campaign for trips on buses and planes). Rollins said the campaign would spend time in Florida, even though they did not expect to win, just to remain in the storyline about the race.

Especially now that Thompson has left the race, Huckabee aides feel their candidate has a special appeal to the South in a field where Romney and Giuliani hail from the Northeast and McCain comes from the West. On the other hand, the winner from Florida will have momentum going into Feb. 5, and, if McCain is that winner, he could sweep the Southern states; even if McCain is upended in Florida, his emphasis on security issues could help him win in states like Georgia as he did in South Carolina.

"We're in a good position," Huckabee told reporters, noting he is second to Romney in delegates in the GOP race. Romney has 59, Huckabee 40, McCain 36 -- mainly because Huckabee's Iowa win brought more delegates than McCain's wins in South Carolina and New Hampshire.

To win, Huckabee will need to find ways to appeal to voters that go beyond shared views on faith and social issues. In his final campaign days in the Palmetto State, Huckabee emphasized his Southern roots and sought to use the kind of message of change that Romney adopted following Iowa.

But in his stop in Atlanta, Huckabee's audience was primarily composed of the social conservatives who have powered his bid, although he gave a nod to a group of religious voters who largely haven't backed him: Catholics.

"I want to say thanks to our brothers and sisters particularly in the Catholic Church, who were way ahead of some of us who are Baptists and other evangelicals, whose voices were louder and clearer and sooner," Huckabee said to applause. "And I thank them for the leadership that they have given to the voice of the pro-life movement across the world."

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 22, 2008; 5:02 PM ET
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