Donald Trump isn’t at the 42nd annual meeting of ALEC in downtown San Diego — unless you consider the piñata hanging at an exhibition hall booth, the real-estate magnate’s name being invoked in private and a telling question by a famed Republican pollster.
Frank Luntz, the pollster and “maestro of messaging,” asked Thursday’s huge luncheon crowd at the Manchester Grand Hyatt: “How many of you are supporting Donald Trump?”
None of the hundreds of American Legislative Exchange Council members or guests, including more than 400 lawmakers, said a word.
The billionaire candidate for president, growing his lead in the GOP polls with every controversial utterance, was never mentioned in a breakfast speech by White House rival Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or the half-hour talk at lunch by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
But while Walker exited the ballroom without meeting the media, Huckabee took questions for 20 minutes at a far smaller room — where he shook hands with every reporter and camera operator, about 20 in all.
Asked about the “elephant not in the room,” Huckabee joked of Trump: “I think he’s in every room right now.”
Turning serious, the former Fox News host said: “You see, I’m here all by myself today. I go where he’s not. Look, he has every right to speak and to be a candidate — just like the rest of us do. But he doesn’t need my help in getting publicity.”
Huckabee said he was “swimming in my own lane” in the 16-candidate field, addressing the issues that matter to him.
But he may have jumped the rope floats when asked if Trump owes Arizona Sen. John McCain an apology. (Trump had questioned the former POW’s status as a war hero.)
“That’s for him to decide,” Huckabee said. “I don’t get to [go] inside another man’s conscience.”
But the 59-year-old ordained Southern Baptist minister went on:
“I’ll just say that John McCain is absolutely without question a true war hero — not only those who have been prisoners of war and suffered immeasurably as John McCain did. It’s not just Purple Heart recipients (either).
“To me, every single person who puts on a uniform for this country is a hero. They put that uniform on on my behalf so that my next breath will be a breath of free fresh air.”
Huckabee chose to highlight other issues in his luncheon speech — especially his support for states invoking Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution. If 34 states back the effort, a constitutional convention would be held to consider new amendments — friendly to conservative causes, he thinks.
“There really is a mechanism (allowing) power to come back to the states,” Huckabee declared, saying a “national movement to invoke Article 5 … is very real.”
He said the nation’s founders included that option in the Constitution, envisioning it “needed to happen when the federal government just wound itself beyond control.”
Huckabee’s themes may not have resonated with the ALEC audience, however, especially when he told the lobbyist-filled room that “the donor class feeds the political class, who take it out on the working class.”
While Walker’s speech was greeted by applause 30 times, Huckabee heard clapping only 10 times.
According to a Real Clear Politics compilation of polls, Huckabee is backed by 6.2 percent of those surveyed — compared with 18.2 percent for Trump and 12 percent for Walker. In early March, Huckabee polled at 13.3 percent.
After his visit with local media, he met privately with ALEC members, with a Secret Service security detail in tow. Then he was off to Las Vegas for a “Huckabee Huddle” with supporters there Thursday night.
The tour’s tagline: “The Huck Stops Here.”