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Huckabee getting bigger crowds

From NBC/NJ's Mike Memoli
HUDSON, N.H. -- Beryl Reeve, a true blue Yankees fan in Red Sox nation, was hoping Derek Jeter would come to her 90th birthday party. She settled for Mike Huckabee.

The former Arkansas governor dropped by Reeve's party in Hudson on Saturday, even leading family and friends in singing happy birthday. "About two years from now we can do the birthday party in the White House," Huckabee announced. Reeve told Huckabee that she'd tell all of her friends to vote for him. "You know what, we just carried New Hampshire!" Huckabee replied. "You got more friends up here than I do."

It was a moment that only happens in New Hampshire. And it's typical of how Huckabee has approached his campaign, working one voter at a time as he seeks to climb in the polls here just as he has in Iowa. But at each stop during his weekend trip to the Granite State, the campaign found that trying to hold these small events has become increasingly difficult.

"We're going to have start thinking, 'Do we have to change venues?'" said Debra Vanderbeek, Huckabee's New Hampshire campaign manager. "We can do some of that, but that's not what this is gonna be about. If it was, it would be a different campaign."

At an event in Concord on Friday, there were a half dozen camera crews, a bevy of local and national print reporters, and even some international press. Standing room only crowds also greeted him Saturday at a house party in Bedford and a dentist's office in Keene on Saturday. "We didn't have as many people as we have reporters and cameras here today," Huckabee said in Bedford. He joked that pundits had written his "political obituary" before writing his "birth announcement." "I'd like to prove that there could be a people's president, not just a pundit's president," he said.

With the bigger crowds has come greater scrutiny. And Huckabee has adjusted his stump speech now to include a defense of his record. "The other candidates in our party were pretty much ignoring me," he said Saturday. "And now they just can't say enough about me."

On taxes, he said rivals "don't tell you that I was the first governor in 160 year history of my state to sign the first ever broad-based tax cuts." "Not only did we make some major tax cuts, but we did it for the people who least could afford to pay it, which to me is what good tax policy ought to do," he said.

On immigration, he says he didn't offer "special breaks" for anybody, alluding to Mitt Romney's criticism of an Arkansas proposal to allow the children of illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition rates. "We have inherited a mess not because states messed it up, but because the states have ended up with the responsibility of trying to deal with an issue that our federal government has sat on for over 20 years," he said.

A voter asked about the immigration proposal in Keene, saying it was the one issue preventing her from supporting him at this point. "I understand. And I may not win you over, to be honest with you," Huckabee. It's that straightforward approach that won over Shannon McGinley, who hosted the house party in Bedford. "Even in those times where I may have disagreed with him, the way he's able to articulate his position, it makes people think, 'Well, okay, that makes sense,'" she said. "He has a very unique ability to communicate to people. And I think that's what we need in a candidate."

Now, Huckabee needs to continue working on getting that message out. Vanderbeek jokes that the campaign staff here had doubled -- "We went from three, and now we have five and a half." And instead of working out of "our cars, out of my basement," the campaign has an office on Main Street in Concord.

They've been able to grow slowly as financial support steps up. The increase in poll numbers, specifically in Iowa, has been critical in changing the dynamic. "We're certainly seeing a dramatic turn," Huckabee said Sunday, after he spoke at a religious service in Nashua. "We've raised more money in the month of November than we have raised in the entire campaign up until then. So something is going on that is just simply amazing."

"A lot of people I think have said, 'Well I like Huckabee, but I don't think he can win,'" said Cliff Hurst, co-chair of Huckabee's New Hampshire campaign. "Now I think people are beginning to see with the poll numbers …  it's beginning to come out." The key to continuing the momentum, Hurst says, is keeping up with the direct approach in the early primary states. And he says Huckabee will continue to campaign aggressively here, even if the situation in Iowa is more promising right now. "Once people know him, once they hear him, once they see him, it's pretty much a done deal," he said.

For Richard Reeve, who arranged for Huckabee to attend his mother's birthday party, it was the candidate's "consistent" message that prompted him to take a closer look. "I always felt that of all the candidates when this first started, he was the one who would be most appealing for someone for VP candidate," he said. "But the way things are going now, he's playing a bigger part in this than anyone expected. And he's gonna win a couple of these primaries and who knows what happens from there?"