(Photo: AP Images / Luis M. Alvarez)
Rising Republican star Mike Huckabee is enjoying yet another surprise in the polls with some placing him first in South Carolina, up from fifth a month ago.
The former long-shot presidential candidate narrowly beat former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani by three percent in a new Mason-Dixon poll conducted in the state.
Huckabee comes in with 20 percent; Giuliani with 17 percent; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 15 percent; former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, 14 percent; and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 10 percent.
Weve been on the stove simmering for about 11 months, Huckabee joked at a Saturday rally in Greenville, according to CNN. Somehow in the last two weeks, the lid blew off and the pot started boiling.
Some political strategists attribute the Huckabee surge to dissatisfaction among GOP conservatives with the Republican candidates, who include a pro-abortion and gay rights current frontrunner and a Mormon candidate accused of flip-flopping on those same two key issues.
Its the night before the prom, said an unnamed veteran strategist to The Washington Post, and theyve (Republican conservatives) been sitting by the phone for a year, waiting for a date. Huckabee comes calling and they are responding, observed the strategist.
The former Arkansas governor recently took the lead in Iowa, ousting rival Romney from his long-held top position.
Huckabees former career as a Southern Baptist pastor and his consistent conservative stance on key issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage have attracted many conservative voters.
Experts comment that both Iowa and South Carolina important early voting states have a large number of evangelicals expected to vote during the caucuses.
Anywhere from 30-50 percent of Republicans who attend Iowa caucuses are Christian evangelicals, according to The Associated Press. Meanwhile, evangelicals make up an estimated 50 percent of South Carolina's primary voters.
Oran Smith of the conservative Palmetto Family Council noted media attention, strong debate performance and a rise in polls have also helped draw hesitant voters from the sidelines and into the Huckabee fan club.
So many now are focusing on people they think are more in line with their values but can win, Smith said to CNN. So youve got Romney and Thompson vying for that conservative who can win label, and all of a sudden here comes Huckabee.
Among those who jumped off the fence is U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) who endorsed Huckabee last month, describing him as authentic and transparent.
The biggest thing hes got going is the sense of authenticity that surrounds him, said Matthew Dowd, who was a chief strategist for President Bushs reelection campaign in 2004 and is now with ABC News as a political commentator, to The Washington Post. That is the contrast [between him and Romney right now] in Iowa.
But matchups between Huckabee and Democratic frontrunners show that he is losing to all three top contenders by double digits. The former Arkansas governor loses to Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York by 10 percentage points (54 percent to 44 percent), to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois by 15 points (55 percent to 40 percent) and to former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina by 25 points (60 percent to 35 percent), according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Tuesday.
The poll suggests Huckabee still lacks national name recognition despite his spurt in conservative Republican circles and in states with heavy evangelical primary voters.
Sen. John McCain has the best shot against the Democratic candidates - barely beating Clinton, tying with Obama, and losing by a small margin to Edwards. On the Democratic side, Edwards has the best performance beating all three leading Republican candidates.
While McCain and Edwards did the best when pitted against the opposite party, both candidates continue to lag behind their parties front-runners.
Edwards is the only Democrat who beats all four Republicans, and McCain is the only Republican who beats any of the three Democrats, said Keating Holland, CNNs polling director. Some might argue this shows that they are the most electable candidates in their respective parties.
But Edwards is in third place among Democrats, and McCain is in fourth place on the GOP side. Maybe electability is not as important as it was in 2004.
Hucakbee, meanwhile, is concentrating on solidifying votes in South Carolina before working on his national image. He ran his first television ad in the state on Monday, a family-friendly promotion called A Better America.