Seated at two tables pushed together in a diner in Scotch Plains, the core of presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's New Jersey supporters plan their next move.
"We've got to be relentlessly positive," says Huckabee for President 2008 lead organizer Peter Kane of Summit. It's a message to which the group immediately responds because most of them say they like Huckabee because he hasn't gone negative in Iowa, and because he just generally projects likeability.
Some of these people gathered signatures for Huckabee, helping to submit 2,300 here in New Jersey or 1,300 more than what the state requires, and now they're ready for the next challenges: busing up to New Hampshire to volunteer for the campaign, writing letters to the editor, or convincing friends and relatives to back their man.
"Very few of New Jersey's Republican Congressional delegation have declared their support for a presidential candidate, and we're reaching out to them," says Kane, a senior vice president at CitiGroup who worked for the Dole campaign in Iowa in the 1996 election, and spent three days with Huckabee in the summer before committing to the former governor of Arkansas.
A Dec. 13th Quinnipiac University presidential poll puts Huckabee in third place in New Jersey at 7% among registered Republicans: 31 points behind front-runner Mayor Rudy Giuliani, five points behind Sen. John McCain, and a point in front of former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney. It doesn't look like much outright, but considering that Huckabee was at 1% in the same poll a month ago, his supporters read it as good news, and evidence that his surge in Iowa has helped him in New Jersey.
Still, "The Huckabee factor is minor in the Republican race," says Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "But Giuliani has slipped 10 points among Republicans and those votes seem to have bypassed McCain and gone to Gov. Huckabee."
Kane offers another New Jersey poll, released by Rasmussen on Tuesday, which shows Sen. Hillary Clinton leading Giuliani 50% to 37%, and leading Huckabee, 51% to 34%.
"It's significant that he fares just as well in a matchup with Hillary Clinton as Giuliani," says the organizer.
As Kane talks to the troops, in the background on a suspended television set Bill O'Reilly says something about Huckabee and as she pours coffee and maneuvers around a campaign lawn sign that Kane has planted beside the table, the waitress grumbles and the only word that's audible is "Huckabee."
All of this in a Route 22 atmosphere that can hardly be called Huckabee Country, in gritty Union County, where these people nonetheless don't have a problem backing a Southern Baptist reverend, who's the current GOP frontrunner in Iowa and polling well nationally.
These are family values conservatives, who for seven years searched in vain to find the compassionate conservative they thought they voted for in George W. Bush, who now believe they finally found the humble warrior they once believed was W.
"When I started watching the Republican and Democratic debates I liked Huckabee because he seemed to me to be the only one speaking from his heart," says Duncan Szeto of Montville. "I think he could unite the nation."
It's a small group of seven New Jerseyans, two of whom were Fred Thompson supporters until what they observed as the former senator's sluggishness on the campaign trail propelled them into the Huckabee camp.
"Although I like his ideas, he doesn't have the energy to go all the way," Jim Wolbert of Garfield says of Thompson.
In the same Quinnipiac Poll for New Jersey, Thompson went from 12% in October, to 4% last week.
Weakened by Huckabee's breakout in Iowa, Romney this week chopped at his rival's economic record over the course of his two terms in Arkansas, arguing that Huckabee had been the steward of tax hikes equaling "hundreds of billions of dollars."
Republican strategist Rick Shaftan of Sparta says Romney has a point.
"Christie Whitman," are the two words he offers in response to a question about Huckabee's conservative credentials, citing the former governor's propensity for issuing pardons and his slack stance on illegal immigration. "Essentially, Huckabee's a pro-life liberal," says Shaftan.
But Huckabee's supporters say their candidate's arrived in first place with far less money than Romney, who in the third quarter raised $18.4 million and is almost $17 million in debt, while Huckabee raised a little over a million and is under $50,000 in debt.
"That right there says if he can run his campaign fiscally smart, he can run the country the same way," says Vicky Jakelsky of Flemington.
Invoking the American Revolution is a common oratorical tactic in Jersey amid the rust colored historical markers strewn across the state, and most every presidential campaign this year sees itself as a ragtag, shivering army shouldering backpacks with laptops in them instead of muskets and powder kegs.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker peppers his Obama speeches with references to Newark's Trinity Churchyard; Murray Sabrin and Joe Fisher stood under an American Revolution statue in Fort Lee last week and proclaimed the Ron Paul revolution; and GOP operative Tom Fitzsimmons on the campaign trail last October repeatedly said Sen. Ellen Karcher and her trusted band of Monmouth County Democrats were like the Hessians.
This evening proves no exception as Kane closes with an allusion to the Continental Army's surprise attack on Hessian headquarters in Trenton in 1776, likening his candidate to a certain tricorn hatted hero forging the Delaware.
"I think Huckabee is as much is as much a leader as Washington was," Kane says. "I'd be proud to paddle his boat anytime."
But a few minutes after the speech a man who sees the Huckabee lawn sign walks over to the table of supporters and wants to know about the cross in the candidate's Christmas season ad in which Huckabee intones, "What we really celebrate is the birth of Christ."
"It's a book shelf," Kane tells the man.
"Coincidence or not?" the man wants to know.
Even as that conversation is going on in the background, Huckabee supporter Jonathan Caplan of Edison appears ready for the requisite Baptist question.
"I'm an orthodox Jew," he answers. "I'm comfortable with that. Religion is treated as anathema in this country. The fact that he's a religious man is a threat to people. I don't think it should be.
Moments later, Jakelsky refers to the group as "y'all," and that begs another inevitable question: Is she a southern belle transplanted to Jersey and is that why she supports Huckabee?
"I lived in Oklahoma and North Carolina,' she says. "But I'm from here. Everyone here thinks politicians should be shrewd, but the rest of the country doesn't think that."
Like Wolbert, Steve Harlan of North Plainfield initially thought he would be standing with Thompson at this point but doesn't like the way the former Tennessee senator resorted to negative attacks against Huckabee and Romney in an attempt to keep his sagging campaign upright.
"The negativity turned me off completely," says Harlan.
But not everyone in Scotch Plains seems convinced of Huckabee's particular public virtues.
"I'd rather have Bush back than vote for Huckabee," says a waitress, a Jersey diehard by the looks of her who at this point doesn't trust politicians – least of all so-called nice guys.
"Bush screwed America," she says with a shrug. "With him I know I'm getting screwed. Completely screwed. These other guys, I don't know what I'm getting."
Carol Nelson of White Horse, shy, glasses, middle-aged – who never felt inspired before Huckabee to get involved in politics, and collected 100s of signatures to get her candidate on the ballot in Jersey, more than anyone else at the meetup – accepts a wrapped gift from Kane for her efforts.
"People who are unfriendly to us pigeonhole Gov. Huckabee," says Kane. "But this is a Republican governor who was re-elected in Arkansas with 30% of the African American vote, who talks passionately about music and arts education in the schools. This is someone with incredible sincerity."