The St. Pete Times provides the first report out of Tampa from last night's fund raiser for Gov. Mike Huckabee:
TAMPA - For months, the pundits have been calling Mike Huckabee a charismatic speaker, an unassuming charmer, a load of laughs and a true social conservative.
But the former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate brought a new description with him as he made his first campaign appearance in Tampa Bay on Tuesday: serious contender.
With polls in Iowa showing the former long shot now in second place and within striking distance of Mitt Romney, Huckabee has emerged as a top-tier candidate with the potential to ride a wave of momentum toward the GOP nomination.
"I love Mike Huckabee," state Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden who is among Florida's most respected and courted conservative leaders and who joined Huckabee in Tampa on Tuesday. "He can articulate the issues, as well as solutions. He's not from Washington, and I think he's a fresh face with lots of great ideas."
The good news for Huckabee, 52, is that he's no longer written off as an also-ran. The bad news is that leading candidates get a lot more heat than long shots, and Huckabee is increasingly fending off critics attacking him as a big government tax raiser.
"If Ronald Reagan were on the ballot today, the Club for Growth would be crawling all over him," Huckabee said of the conservative group that has been relentlessly bashing Huckabee for state spending and tax increases during Huckabee's tenure as Arkansas governor.
In a Political Connections interview to air Sunday on Bay News 9, Huckabee downplayed his role in the early release of convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who weeks after winning his freedom sexually assaulted and murdered a woman in Arkansas. Huckabee personally interviewed Dumond, publicly advocated for his release, and met on the matter behind closed doors with the parole board.
"Even though I supported the idea that he get parole, I had nothing to do with his parole because parole was not the domain of the governor," said Huckabee. But he acknowledged "terrible regrets."
Compared to Rudy Giuliani and Romney, who have organized and campaigned in Florida for months, Huckabee's Florida operation has been nearly nonexistent. With little money and a minimal campaign organization, he's banking on a strong showing in Iowa to catapult him into Florida's Jan. 29 primary.
Huckabee's low-key trip to Tampa Bay included a few media interviews and a $250-per-person fundraising reception at the South Tampa home of Stewart and Tammy Bertron.
Stewart Bertron, an investor, is one Huckabee's "Team 100" members working to raise at least $100,000 for the campaign. Also on the fundraising team is Byron "Gibbs" Wilson, owner of Tampa's Alpha-Omega Title.
"He's a conservative with a conscience," said Larry Sledge of Tampa, helping organize Huckabee's Tampa appearance. "He seems so genuine compared to so many of the other candidates whose minds you can see turning whenever they're asked a question - 'what's the correct answer here?'"
What's winning over supporters, Huckabee said, is authenticity. And he's not especially bothered by conservative skeptics who deride him as a populist.
"I think I'm a realist. I'm a person who is a conservative but an independent conservative," he said. "I'm not a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street. I'm not in the back pocket of the lobbyists on K Street. I never have been. I've never been the establishment's favorite, and that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Huckabee said he would support drilling near the Florida coast and within the Everglades "for a short term solution," but, when pressed, backed off drilling in the Everglades. He also was receptive to the idea of a national catastrophic fund to help spread the risk and alleviate Florida's property insurance fix.