Lexington, SC

Every Plank denizen should take a brief detour to the Stump, where Noam's done a fantastic Deep Blue on the next moves in the Republican race. But Noam, when you write that "with his war chest, Romney should be able to sneak into the top two in Florida," I'm not sure that's right—Romney's war chest didn't get him anywhere near the top two here. And I wonder if you underestimate Huckabee's resilience going forward to February 5. Huckabee leads Romney in national polls, and it's not a Hillary-esque name-recognition thing, since Huckabee has no more claim to name recognition than Romney does. What fuels Huck's national numbers? His brilliant manipulation of free media, from Leno to Joe Scarborough to the negative-ad stunt we all panned (and thereby hyped) in Iowa.

Every morning, I suspect a number of us wake up and think to ourselves, "Is today the day the presidential candidate who fried squirrels in a popcorn popper's fifteen minutes are up?" But Huckabee is no rube. As I've tracked him, I've been impressed with his political skills – not just as a communicator but as a strategist. Take his campaign event yesterday evening in Lexington, where he appeared at the grand opening of the Lexington County Republican Party's new headquarters in a former mortgage company's office in a strip mall.

Deep Blue would have told Huckabee to skip this one. As a rule, you can gauge the strength of a presidential candidate by how much the local party hacks peopling his events feel he is doing them a favor. A serious national candidate never wants to be doing local hacks favors – it should be the other way around. But Lexington Republican Party Chairman Katrina Shealy, a cheery blonde who looks uncannily like Newt Gingrich's third wife, is dismayingly grateful that Huckabee's agreed to grace her li'l old grand opening. "We wanted to do [the opening] before the primary, so we would get more attention," she chirps. Great big strips of plywood along the office's walls still aren't painted, and the sign for the mortgage company still hangs on the front. "Huckabee was the only one who would come when we wanted to do it. The others were too busy."

Word travels around the room that Huckabee is running late. I will him not to show up at all. Events like this are designed to strain a famous person's dignity, putting him on the level with a municipality's beloved dogcatcher. Standing with Jim Wellman, the portly treasurer of the county Republicans, our eyes wander over to a twirl of fat, satiny red ribbon and a giant pair of scissors lying on the hors d'oeuvres table. Is Huckabee going to cut the ribbon for the new headquarters? I ask. "Now, that is gonna be a problem," Wellman whispers, tweaking the Yale Club-style blue blazer that he's wrapped around his red sweater-vest. "You see …the mayor brought the scissors." Uh-oh …

And indeed, after Huckabee shows up and arranges himself in a line with the local officials, there is a Moment:

Shealy (eagerly): "You wanna hold it [the scissors]?"
Huckabee: Uh—
Lexington Mayor Randy Halfacre: (noises of protest)
Huckabee: I'll just put my hand on it. 


After Shealy, Mayor Halfacre and Huckabee awkwardly cut the ribbon together, Huckabee stands there like a potted plant while the others pass tribute gifts back and forth to each other across his body—a plaque, a framed flag that flew over South Carolina's Capitol from state party chair Katon Dawson. As I watch him, I'm thinking: What the hell did he skip for this?

But it turns out the ribbon-cutting is targeted. By some calculations, Lexington is the most Republican county in the state. "In town, we used to vote in an old armory," recalls Wellman. "There were fifteen Republican voting machines, and then allllll the way over there, one leetle Democratic machine."

This is no ordinary favor—Huckabee's just made a lot of honchos in the state's conservative stronghold feel very good. ("I've done a lot of ribbon cutting, but never with the potential next president of the United States!" chortles Mayor Halfacre.) After the public event, Huck ducks into a back room with the Lexington big machers and shuts the door, presumably to seal the deal.

The Lexington County Republican Party grand opening represents a distinct strategy of Huckabee's: Show up to events that have already been planned instead of setting up your own. Not only is it cheaper, but it can be much more efficient, too. The pastors' conference earlier this week was just such an event—it let him choose to speak to a pre-selected, near-perfect audience. Compare these Huck appearances with Romney's Wednesday rally at USC. Romney had to rent the space, gin up the U2-style stage, do security and crowd control and sound—all for an audience that was probably half made up of non-voting students who had wandered over from the adjoining dining hall just to see somebody famous.

--Eve Fairbanks