December 14, 2007

Huckabee Surge Spreading

Don't look now, but the Republican presidential race has become extremely interesting. Fueled by apparent discontent with the top-tier candidates, Mike Huckabee has zoomed out of nowhere to become the hottest candidate in the race. He now leads in South Carolina according to CNN's polling, and Rasmussen now shows him leading in Florida, a stronghold for Rudy Giuliani all year:

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee surged to the top among Republican presidential candidates in South Carolina, while Sen. Hillary Clinton's lead over Sen. Barack Obama among Democrats narrowed since July in that state, according to a new poll.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll of South Carolinians was released Friday Huckabee was the choice of 24 percent of South Carolina Republicans in the survey conducted by telephone between Dec. 9 and 12. When the same poll was conducted in July, Huckabee was in the lower tier with just 3 percent of support from registered GOP voters.

Rudy didn't have much chance at winning South Carolina, but until now his chief rival was Fred Thompson. The Thompson campaign issued a broadside at Huckabee last night, and now we know why. Huckabee has duplicated his Iowa surge in South Carolina, vaulting over the previous top four candidates into the lead, and a substantial one at that.

Florida may prove Huckabee's strength most:

Mitt Romney’s strategy for winning the Republican nomination was to win the early states and build momentum. Rudy Giuliani’s plan was to accept defeats in the early states and come back strong on January 29 in Florida and in many large states on February 5.

The latest Rasmussen Reports polling in the state of Florida suggests that Giuliani might need to work on a “Plan B.’ Mike Huckabee now leads in the Sunshine State Primary with 27% of the vote. He is trailed closely by Romney at 23% and Giuliani at 19%. Fred Thompson is at 9% in the poll, John McCain at 6%, and Ron Paul at 4%. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter each attract 1% and 8% are undecided.

Before now, Giuliani happily sat back and let Huckabee do damage to Romney's early state strategy. Rudy had no shot at winning the Iowa caucuses, and Huckabee served as a good proxy for his perceived two-man race against Mitt. Florida, with its substantial number of New York expatriates, was considered firm ground for Rudy. This latest poll shows that Rudy may pay the price for his proxy assignment in Iowa.

Huckabee has gained credibility at an amazing rate in this race. The biggest question is why. It appears that the evangelicals have begun to make their voice heard in this race. For months, they complained about the lack of choice for their constituency, even at one point threatening to splinter into a third party. Instead, they seem to have collected themselves and looked for the most representative candidate in the race -- and Huckabee has the strongest record on pro-life and social-conservative causes.

The question for the Republicans regarding Huckabee is whether he will represent fiscal conservatism and small-government ideals as well as his other policy strengths. His recent adoption of a harder line on immigration may help convince people to support him, but his comments on education at the last debate may hurt. Despite comparisons to Jimmy Carter, the easier comparison here is to George W Bush, and plenty in the party want a more reliable small-government, low spender as the nominee.

Can Huckabee make that sale? Can anyone in this race make the whole-package sale? Obviously not, and that's why some have taken a second look at the Arkansas governor. Huckabee seems ready to render all previous electoral strategies moot -- and he could wind up riding momentum to a shocking come-from-behind nomination.


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