Hardcore Huckabee

The fact that John McCain's picture is suddenly plastered all over the place next to photos of a pretty lobbyist sure isn't going to help him with the people he needs most, the hardcore Huckabee fans.

They've suspected McCain of compromising positions all along. They already describe him as a liberal.

And the only thing these folks are liberal about is being conservative.

In fact, the thousand or so who came to hear Mike Huckabee in North Texas Wednesday night believe there is no such thing as being too conservative.

When a speaker describes a local politician as rigid, strict and unbending, they roar with approval. They cheer wildly at a checklist of things they're against. Every time someone on stage mentions abortion, it nearly sparks a riot.

Their obsession with issues of personal morality is what prompted them to leave their homes in the well-off, conservative suburb of Plano and drive to this stuffy college conference center. They came to commune with a man they believe has little chance of winning the nomination and even less chance of becoming president.

They're here simply because Mike Huckabee has been representing them in this primary race. Right now, no one else on the national stage reflects their feelings or their fervor the way he does.

John McCain may be a war hero, but he has never been a soldier in the war these people are waging.

These voters are the direct descendants of Barry Goldwater and the disciples of James Dobson. They home school. They use the word "smite" in casual conversation. They are fired up and ready to go... to heaven.

It's tempting to mock some of these Texans, who look and sound like they came from conservative central casting.

A large man in a bull-riding shirt and a massive cowboy hat tells me gruffly, "We're pro gun. And not necessarily for hunting."

A woman with big hair and a rhinestone-riddled jacket confides one of her greatest fears: the U.S. is "becoming more and more like Denmark." She goes on to say that she is "not happy with Bush even though I worked hard for him. He's acting like a Democrat."

Another man tells me through clenched teeth that he is going to vote for Huckabee, but he wishes the former Arkansas governor were "tougher on immigration."

Not illegal immigration, mind you. Immigration.

Not far away, a sweet woman introduces herself as the head of "Hispanics for Huckabee." That's gonna be a tough sell here. These people are less likely to speak Spanish than they are to speak in tongues.

In a holding room next door, Mike Huckabee sits in a pool of light, doing a round robin of interviews with local TV and talk radio. He is gracious and quick with a quip and sounds as if he is ready to make his last stand in the Alamo state. He tells a reporter, "This is about the voices in this party who haven't been heard."

Behind a wall, the men's quartet that will sing the National Anthem tonight is warming up, creating an odd effect when Huckabee talks. His words, spoken with a preacher's uncanny cadence and set to this patriotic music, sound like a polished campaign commercial.

Oh, say does that star-spangled...

"Texas is the second largest state in this country, the largest Republican state in this country. We can win here," he says, with a pause that is perfectly timed for the music.

O'er the land of the...

"If that happens," he continues, "we will have a very different debate on March 5th."

...and the home of the brave!

Huckabee feels at home in Texas and he may well win the state. Republicans here have a habit of turning on presidential front-runners that seem too moderate.

Gerald Ford learned that the hard way in 1976, when Ronald Reagan trounced him in Texas.

The man introducing Huckabee recalls that Reagan victory and reminds the crowd of what it meant to conservatives.

"Today," the man with the mike says, "some are saying that conservatives in Texas should collapse."

The crowd boos.

He shouts triumphantly, "Well, this isn't the Socialist Party. This is the Republican Party!"

The crowd cheers.

"We're not Massachusetts or Wisconsin. The battle is now in Texas... We fight for what we believe in!!"

That triggers screaming and war whoops, sign waving and stomping.

"Are you ready to meet the guy who's gonna shock the world when he wins Texas?"

They begin their chant. "We like Mike. We like Mike. We like Mike."

Standing in this room, listening to the chanting and looking at the crowd, it's easy to feel as though I've accidentally stepped into the way-back machine, back to "We Like Ike."

But then, inside this room, it is the 1950s.

The crowd is virtually all white and everyone seems to know each other from church. They believe in faith, traditional families and freedom - the limits of which they will determine, of course.

Here, homosexuals don't exist, abortion is illegal and ours is strictly a Christian country.

Their beliefs, their message and their movement may seem dated to some. But for decades now, the people in this room -- and millions like them -- are the Americans who have determined the outcome of presidential elections.

Dis' them if you like.

Dismiss them at your peril.