WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee might still have to spell his surname when he greets voters, but he's counting on a bit more "Hey-I've-heard-of-you" recognition on the streets now, following his strong showing last weekend in Iowa's Republican straw poll.
In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters over breakfast here on Thursday, Huckabee said he feels confident that he can get his populist message across to voters. He said that he — not conservative Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. — is the best option for voters looking for a conservative values-based candidate. He also thinks he can reach beyond religious voters, especially on economic issues, in New Hampshire and elsewhere.
He said he understands why factory workers and other working-class citizens don't see a strong economy. "They're, at best, staying even.... No matter how hard they work and how much they earn, they're not quite making it to the next level."
Social conservative, economic populist and a warm down-home personality — add it all up and it landed him second in the first state where GOP votes were cast for 2008. That boosted his confidence.
"I kind of like to think we'd finish first in the (Iowa) caucuses," Huckabee said. "I'll be pleased if we do well. Usually there's two or three tickets that come out of Iowa and New Hampshire."
Once a long shot for the GOP nomination, Huckabee might have just vaulted himself into becoming a first-tier candidate, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the respected Cook Political Report in Washington.
Now he has to translate the straw-poll blip into something steadier, and he's got some obstacles to overcome. For one, Huckabee, who pitches himself as a "Main Street Republican," lags impressively behind the GOP stars in fundraising — he had only $437,000 at the end of June.
For another, he's a Southern Baptist preacher trying to campaign in socially moderate New Hampshire, close to the home turf of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won the Iowa straw poll.
Then, too, Huckabee's campaign operation is much more limited than the organizations that his top-tier rivals have been building for months.
"The question is, can he translate it into money, and the harder part is, can he translate this into organization?" Duffy said. Even so, she said, "I think he climbed a lot of rungs."
Placing second in Iowa's straw poll isn't exactly like winning a primary. It's a fundraising device for the state Republican Party. People pay $35 a head to participate — and presidential campaigns often pay the fees to boost their support.
In addition, pundits were quick to note that popular GOP candidates Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, along with likely contender Fred Thompson, sat it out, dimming its already limited significance.
But Huckabee said he thinks those candidates didn't get in the game because they knew they couldn't win.
"The straw poll means you've organized people," he said. "That's the beginning of your ground game."
One of Huckabee's biggest potential liabilities is his lack of experience with foreign policy, a central election issue in 2008.
"That is absolutely one of the qualifications he doesn't bring," Duffy said. Still, she added, no one else in the GOP field but McCain of Arizona has much experience either, and McCain's campaign is sputtering.
Huckabee disputed the suggestion that he has no foreign-policy experience.
Unlike senators, he said, governors travel the world as chief executive officers of their states, courting international partners and signing trade deals.
"We're not completely devoid of any experience," he said. "What people want in a president is someone who has the kind of judgment, communicative skills and perspective to work with countries in a way that restores some of the prestige we've lost."
Moreover, Huckabee emphasized, the next president must also be steeped in domestic policy, with an understanding of health care, education, energy independence and infrastructure.
"A president who only focuses on international issues and doesn't pay attention to domestic issues is going to be making a big mistake," he said.
Huckabee is trying to bolster his fundraising in the wake of the straw poll, and he knows he must work quickly. South Carolina Republicans moved their primary date up to Jan. 19, and New Hampshire may move its primary into December. Huckabee said he'd rather fight early than see the nomination still up for grabs much beyond February.
"That long of a primary would be brutal," he said.