After slow start, front-runner status being enjoyed

COLUMBIA — Ten months ago it didn't seem like Mike Huckabee's true believers in South Carolina could fill a room. And for those like Adam Piper, life wasn't easy.

Piper, then an unpaid campaign volunteer living off side work and his savings, saw his candidate's poll numbers in the basement, and he even endured a jeering call from one rival GOP campaign.

Now, less than a month before South Carolina's Republican primary, Piper's man is enjoying front-runner status.

And Piper, who still lacks a formal title even though he's done everything from solicit endorsements to lead grass-roots efforts, is finally enjoying a paycheck: $2,500 a month.

Piper, 23, met Huckabee in early 2005 and said he was inspired by the book detailing the former Arkansas governor's weight loss.

"He's as real as it gets," Piper said.

Piper carried on through spring and summer as the polls looked grim and most media outlets ignored the campaign.

Huckabee mustered just 21 votes in a March straw poll in Columbia, finishing seventh — behind former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was never even a candidate.

Early on, an aide at another Republican campaign rubbed some salt in the wounds on Piper's voice mail. "That message was along the line of, 'He's a loser; you're stupid,' " Piper recalled.

But things have changed. Three polls taken in December give Huckabee all or part of the lead in South Carolina.

"In hindsight, it looks like they were ahead of the curve," Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said of supporters such as Piper.

"There just aren't that many true believers among hard core political consultants."

As Piper signed on, state Rep. Liston Barfield was casting about for a candidate. He led a group working to draft former Virginia Sen. George Allen, whose hopes for the White House were dashed when he uttered what some considered a racial slur.

Allen lost his re-election bid and any hope of running for president.

"We wouldn't be having this conversation today about Mike Huckabee if George Allen was in the Senate," Barfield said. Barfield said Huckabee went over nearly every issue with him during a meeting, and he was impressed.

"He was a long shot," Barfield conceded, but "I was convinced if he could get his message out, he could win. Everybody said he can't get it out because he doesn't have any money. But he was the only candidate I could go to the polls and vote for."

Also early on, the son and widow of the popular former Gov. Carroll Campbell jumped on. Mike Campbell and his mother gave the campaign credibility with a well-known name in this state.

Another boost came in May when former Gov. David Beasley endorsed Huckabee, calling him "authentic and consistently conservative." Beasley's endorsement helped bring more people aboard, Piper said.

Still, Huckabee's campaign staff remains the thinnest among the front-runners — just four full-time, paid workers. Staff will be brought in from Iowa, Arkansas and New Hampshire before the primary.