From the Orlando Sentinel:
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee picked up campaign cash and endorsements in Orlando on Thursday, riding a surge in the polls that may signal hope for him in the Sunshine State and problems for Republican favorite Rudy Giuliani.
As he has done in Iowa, Huckabee is shaking up Florida Republican politics.
Giuliani, who plans to stump in Orlando today, once held a double-digit lead in Florida, past polls showed. But recent likely-voter surveys indicate the socially conservative Huckabee, thanks in part to evangelical Christian voters, is drawing even with the more moderate former New York City mayor.
"If Huckabee can surge ahead of Giuliani in Florida, that spells the end of Giuliani," said University of Florida political-science professor Daniel A. Smith, noting how important the state is for the GOP's current front-runner. "For Giuliani, it has always been his to lose."
In his Orlando speech, Huckabee spent several minutes condemning the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto but quickly shifted to the domestic issues that underlie his poll numbers.
He talked of his support for a flat tax to replace the existing income tax, and his opposition to abortion rights. And he proudly noted his outsider status, pointing out he never made the "anointed list" drafted by party insiders.
"Our campaign has been one that's confounded the pundits," Huckabee said -- and predicted a first-place finish in Florida's Jan. 29 primary.
The stop was part of a two-day sprint from one end of the state to the other.Huckabee spent the day after Christmas in South Florida, capitalizing on political and fundraising support from his Florida campaign co-chair, state House Speaker Marco Rubio, and his political allies, state Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, and Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.
Thursday, Huckabee attended two private fundraisers, one in Winter Park and the other in Windermere. Those who came, said to be business executives and social conservatives, were expected to help Huckabee raise about $350,000 during his trip.
Among them were such crucial supporters as Steve Strang, a Christian publisher from Lake Mary, and Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando religious legal-advocacy group. Both are reaching out to a network of pastors and Christian voters around the state.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster of Winter Garden, another state co-chairman, helped arrange the rally at Orlando Executive Airport, where a crowd of 150 or so turned out. Some were self-identified Christian evangelicals, sporting T-shirts that said "Home schoolers for Huckabee" and car windows painted: "Faith, Family and Freedom."
Looking over the size of the crowd, Webster added, "The polls helped."
Huckabee then flew to Destin before heading back to Iowa. He'll remain there through Jan. 3, when the state holds its caucuses.
Huckabee's rapid rise in state and national polls has come at a time when challengers such as former Tennessee U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have faltered.
Romney lost at least one Lake County campaign co-chairman Thursday when former state Sen. Dick Langley tore a Romney sticker off his chest for the television cameras, replacing it with one for Huckabee."I wanted a candidate who stood where I stood on the issues," Langley said later. "And I couldn't figure out where Mitt stood."
University of Florida political-science professor Ken Wald, who studies the impact of religion on politics, said many Christian voters liked Huckabee but had wanted to wait and see if he was viable. "They've effectively been without a candidate," Wald said.
Ken and Caron Majors, who attend First Baptist Church in Orlando, said Huckabee -- an ordained minister -- speaks their language. "He shares our values," Caron Majors said.
Webster said Huckabee plans to open and staff a state headquarters in Orlando next month. But it might be some time before any television ads appear, he added, because launching a Florida ad campaign is so expensive.