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South kind to Obama, Huckabee, but that may not be enough to win

Georgia holds among the best prospects for victory for Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama in Super Tuesday's barrage of Republican and Democratic presidential balloting.

But even if they win here in two days, they stand a good chance of losing more ground than they gain in the other 23 states voting in what essentially is a national primary.

The stakes are higher for Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor desperately needs a victory somewhere after suffering nothing but setbacks since his only win in Iowa.

Because of that losing streak, he is being forced to fight widespread perceptions that he is all but out of the GOP race and can hope at best for a vice-presidential nod.

Given the Baptist minister's natural appeal to evangelical Christians, Huckabee was well positioned to grab conservative support that would have gone to former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson if his campaign had taken off.

In fact, Huckabee took the lead in Georgia polls just as Thompson's candidacy waned.

But Huckabee's failure to win either in South Carolina, a state dominated by Christian conservatives, or Florida has hurt his chances in Georgia.

"There will be a large number of evangelical conservatives voting," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "But he couldn't carry a majority of that vote in South Carolina or Florida."

Indeed, most polls that have come out since those two primaries show Arizona Sen. John McCain in the lead in Georgia, as he builds on momentum he captured by winning in South Carolina and Florida.

The Florida victory was particularly significant for McCain because it was a closed primary, meaning only registered Republicans could vote.

With a reputation as a maverick, McCain has always appealed more to independent voters than mainstream Republicans.

The GOP base didn't appreciate his votes against President Bush's tax cuts or his support of a bid by the president to pass an immigration reform bill that would have given those in this country illegally a pathway to citizenship.

But Black said McCain's plurality win in Florida in essentially a four-way contest with Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani doesn't clinch anything.

"If you actually look at the exit polls, he only got a third of the Republican voters," Black said. "He's still got big problems with conservatives and self-identified Republicans."

Still, Black said McCain is now in the driver's seat. Giuliani's decision to leave the race and endorse McCain lends him valuable support from Republican voters who are strong on national security, particularly in Northeastern states like New York and New Jersey.

McCain also should do well in his native region, where primaries are taking place in Arizona and California.

On the other hand, Huckabee's determination to keep plugging away cuts into Romney's strategy of appealing to the GOP's large contingent of social conservatives.

"I think McCain has got the advantage unless Romney can really become the alternative for conservative voters," Black said.

The scenarios are simpler on the Democratic side, where Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton are the only candidates left standing.

Like Huckabee, Obama is expected to do well in Southern and border states including Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.

The senator from Illinois also should grab an important win in his home state.

Obama has taken a solid lead in the most recent Georgia polls, where black voters are expected to make up more than 40 percent of the Democratic electorate.

He won by a wide margin in South Carolina, another state where blacks are a huge factor in Democratic primaries.

But inside that South Carolina victory was a disturbing trend for Obama that repeated itself in Florida.

After capturing the Iowa caucuses in a state that is more than 95 percent white, he only won about a quarter of the white vote in South Carolina and Florida.

The big states at stake Tuesday don't have nearly as high a percentage of black voters as South Carolina.

"He could still win Georgia without running that strongly among whites," Black said. "Beyond that, he really needs a significant increase among white voters to be competitive."

While Obama lost decisively in Florida, there was some encouraging news for him to be found in those results.

Black said that while Clinton won overwhelmingly among Florida Democrats who took advantage of early voting or who decided who they would support early in the race, the late deciders broke toward Obama.

He also has been building a larger lead or shrinking his deficit in polls in many Super Tuesday states, including Georgia and California.

"There may be some movement toward Obama that hasn't been detected yet," Black said.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.