December 3, 2007

Is Huckabee The Anti-Rudy And The Anti-Mitt?

With Mike Huckabee rising unexpectedly in Iowa against a huge Mitt Romney organization, can he duplicate that success elsewhere against Rudy Giuliani? Will his squeaky-clean Baptist minister image get a boost from a recent ethics eruption that has Team Rudy struggling to answer? USA Today paints a picture of a candidate finding his footing just as the front-runners seem to have lost theirs:

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the Republican long shot who in a new Des Moines Register poll has surged to the lead for the Iowa caucuses, could hardly be more different from the candidate who has led the GOP field nationally all year.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani entered politics as a big-city prosecutor; Huckabee as a rural preacher. Giuliani is out of synch with the GOP's social conservative core; Huckabee is its most consistent champion. Giuliani's calling card is his leadership against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks; Huckabee has less experience on defense and foreign policy issues than any of his chief rivals.

The two candidacies offer dramatically different paths for a Republican Party now struggling to define and sell itself to voters. Should the GOP be led by an often-caustic, opera-loving New Yorker who vows to battle radical Islam? Or a joke-cracking Southerner who raises income inequality as an issue and favors classic rock and contemporary Christian music on his two iPods?

The chasm between him and Giuliani on the issues they emphasize and the regional cultures they represent "shows that the Republican Party is a bigger tent than the Democrat Party," Huckabee says. Perhaps, but it also underscores how unsettled the Republican contest is just a month before the Iowa caucuses — and reflects how no GOP contender has satisfied a majority of the party.

Social conservatives have champed at the bit for months, decrying the lack of reliable conservatives among the front-runners. Many hoped Fred Thompson would provide the bridge between hard-nosed foreign policy, federalism, and social policy that would conservatives of all stripes, but thus far Thompson has failed to do so. In the latest national Rasmussen tracking, Thompson has fallen far off the pace from his peak in October, when he commanded 25% of likely Republican primary voters to 14% now.

Many people look to Giuliani for his electability -- and indeed, he shows that he can beat Hillary Clinton in a national election. However, Huckabee now comes within a single point of Hillary nationally as well, a dramatic improvement over September, when he was eight points behind her. He also challenges Giuliani in Florida, coming in second in a recent poll there, and third in South Carolina, behind Romney and Giuliani but ahead of Thompson and John McCain.

Can Huckabee translate his momentum into a national surge? Perhaps, but he needs help from the front-runners to do so. If Giuliani cannot answer the allegations of abuse of privilege regarding the use of police chauffeurs for his now-wife and then-girlfriend Judith any better than he has so far, then the Republicans will lose the ability to highlight the ethical lapses of the Clintons in the general election. Primary voters may also wonder what will come out next from Rudy's term as mayor. Will this be the last of the surprises, or is someone saving something juicier for later?

Huckabee can count on one important boost: the national media already loves this story. An underdog comes out of (nearly) nowhere to challenge the front-runners on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. Expect to get a healthy dose of this every day until Christmas, or until something else breaks in the race.


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