Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Republican presidential candidate speaks during the Rick Scott's Economic Growth Summit held at the Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center on June 2, 2015 in Orlando, Fla.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty

Huckabee’s latest strategy aims to turn trolling into better polling

While Hillary Clinton had her hands full Thursday with 11 hours of questioning before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, another presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, was having quite the busy day himself:

And for the pièce de résistance:

Unsurprisingly, that last one inspired quite a few Twitter users to offer up their own interpretations of what the former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential hopeful might look like with some ink. But a mock Photoshop contest was probably not what Huckabee had in mind when he fired off no fewer than nine colorful tweets about the Benghazi hearing Thursday, and another one for good measure Friday morning. He also gave an exclusive interview to Breitbart News, suggesting that had Clinton communicated with slain Ambassador Chris Stevens as much as she did with friend and former aide Sidney Blumenthal, “then those four Americans might not be dead today.”

With the Iowa caucuses a little over three months away, Huckabee has yet to have his moment. His poll numbers are bad (though not bad enough to bump him from the mainstage at next week’s CNBC debate.) And he’s way behind in the GOP money race, having raised just $1.24 million – the lowest out of all the 10 candidates who’ve made a top-tier debate this year.

RELATED: GOP candidates ding Hillary Clinton during Benghazi hearing

Given those challenges, it’s understandable then to see Huckabee now dabbling with a bit of political theater, to say the least. A former Baptist pastor, Fox News pundit, and author of several books, Huckabee knows how to speak in soundbites to get a good headline – particularly when it comes to social issues. Most recently, he’s picked a fight with Rainbow Doritos, criticized President Obama’s treatment of the pope as “classless,” and staged a highly dramatic scene outside a Kentucky jail for the release of anti-gay marriage Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis. Like Donald Trump, Huckabee has also been a consistent source of entertainment on Twitter, although he hasn’t proven to be quite as politically adept at it as the real estate mogul.

Yet with the summer “silly season” long gone and the presidential field beginning to winnow, this latest Benghazi rant begs a serious question: Is Mike Huckabee still making a genuine play for the White House, or just trolling the candidates who are?

The Huckabee camp, for its part, insists it’s the former.

“Everything’s going just how we figured it would go,” J. Hogan Gidley, Huckabee’s senior communications advisor, told MSNBC.

“Our team is savvy enough and experienced enough to be able to shift strategy if we need to. But right now, we’re doing the right things,” he added.

That strategy, said Gidley, is centered around building a robust ground organization in Iowa and South Carolina – two early primary states where Huckabee hopes to shine. In 2008, Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses by a wide margin, thanks in large part to broad support among evangelicals. At this point eight years ago, notes Gidley, Huckabee was similarly behind in polling and fundraising numbers. And while he only pulled in 3% support among likely GOP caucus-goers in a new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll out this week, Huckabee also scored a key endorsement from a prominent grassroots conservative activist in the Hawkeye State, Pastor Terry Amann, his second in the last two months.

“We’ve got plenty of money to competitive,” said Gidley. “And if we were really paying attention to the polls, we’d be having a conversation about President Giuliani or President Herman Cain” – two Republican candidates who topped the polls early in the 2008 and 2012 elections, respectively, only to flop later on.

“If you’re hot now, chances are you’re going to be cold when it comes time to vote,” he added.

Some are skeptical of Team Huckabee’s optimism, however, and view his inflammatory tweeting as a clear act of desperation, if not outright trolling.

“People aren’t taking him that seriously,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked with Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. “I don’t know if he’s solely just a troll. But he’s definitely a candidate who’s down on his luck, grasping at straws.”

Unlike in ‘08, the major problem Huckabee now faces is a field with several candidates who can appeal to evangelicals and social conservatives, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson. Voters have also been leaning heavily toward “outsider” candidates – a category in which, though he’s never worked in Washington, the former Arkansas governor can’t really claim to belong.

“[Huckabee’s] strong point has always been social conservatives, and right now they’re gravitating toward Carson and Cruz,” said O’Connell. “He’s a man without a slice of the party right now.”

Despite the challenging dynamics of this race, Gidley still believes Huckabee can triumph. “Yes, evangelicals are a huge part of his base,” he said, “but so is the working class.” As for voters’ appetite for a president who’s never held elected office, Gidley is confident that will fade in time.

“There are a lot of voters out there who want to tear the system down,” he said. “But if you don’t have plan to build it back up, that’s a problem.”

One thing is for certain: As Huckabee waits for voters to embrace him, there will surely be more tweets about Benghazi and Clinton. “The GOP is united on one thing,” said O’Connell. “And that’s Hillary Clinton.”