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Huckabee gains ground with Iowa evangelicals

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  • Mike Huckabee gaining support with his anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage record
  • Huckabee's campaign staff recently grew from six to 14 people
  • GOP rivals are becoming more aggressive in their criticism of Huckabee
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By Dana Bash
Washington Bureau
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DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) -- Every Sunday, Pastor Darran Whiting talks to his small yet devout flock in Coggon, Iowa, about faith and family values.

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Mike Huckabee is gaining ground in Iowa, where Christian conservatives make up about 40 percent of the GOP vote.

He's careful not to talk politics in his sermons, but as soon as he steps off the pulpit, Whiting is eager talk about the presidential candidate he thinks is practicing what he's preaching: Mike Huckabee.

"Gov. Huckabee stands on the issues I stand for. Socially conservative as far as being pro-life, as far as being pro-family," said Whiting.

Two polls out last week show Huckabee gaining ground -- second place in one and a statistical dead heat with front-runner Mitt Romney in another.

It is support from evangelicals like Whiting that is driving Huckabee's surge in Iowa, where Christian conservatives make up an estimated 40 percent of the GOP vote.

Matt Reisetter, a young evangelical leader who signed onto the Huckabee campaign this month, said the former Arkansas governor is gaining momentum among pastors across Iowa with his anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage record and because Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, speaks their language. Video Watch what's behind Huckabee's surge in Iowa »

"We don't question where he's at, we don't question what he believes. He's one of us," said Reisetter.

The challenge for the Huckabee campaign is turning popularity at the polls into votes on election day. With Iowa's complicated caucus system, organization is essential to mobilizing the vote, and Huckabee's underfunded, understaffed campaign is behind.

"It really is a matter of getting the organization to catch up to where the governor is. We're not there yet," said Eric Woolson, Huckabee's Iowa campaign manager.

Woolson said they're slowly building a database, using what he called "natural coalitions" of homeschoolers and small-town pastors. Huckabee's campaign staff recently more than doubled from six to 14 people, and they expanded their small workspace to accommodate volunteers helping with the final push toward January 3.

Sarah Huckabee, the candidate's daughter, is also his national field director and now lives in to Iowa to focus full time on the caucuses.

She said her father has been so successful at luring voters he meets in person, the strategy in the last month of the campaign will mirror the down home approach that propelled him into Iowa's top tier.

"I think one of the biggest things is being able to reach out and get our candidate in front of as many people as possible," said Sarah Huckabee.

But Huckabee's rise in the polls means increased scrutiny, and GOP rivals are now much more aggressive in their criticism.

Fred Thompson, an actor and former Tennessee senator, calls him a "pro-life liberal," because of his populist economic positions and his record raising some taxes as governor of Arkansas.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney attacks Huckabee's Arkansas policy of offering college tuition tax breaks to children of illegal immigrants.

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So far Huckabee and his aides insist they welcome the attacks, calling it proof he's in the game.

But with more than 40 days to go until caucus day, Iowa Republicans are bracing for a tight race that could turn ugly, and its unclear how much Huckabee's campaign can sustain. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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