The Politico reports that Iowans have warmed up to a second-tier candidate in the Republican presidential primary race, one with executive experience and conservative bona fides. Governor Mike Huckabee has pulled into a fourth-place tie with John McCain among likely caucus voters, perhaps signaling a move from the pack to the frontrunners:
Going into Sunday’s Republican presidential debate, most of the Iowans noshing on English muffins in the sun room of the neon-bedecked Drake Diner had never heard of Mike Huckabee, or knew very little about the ex-preacher and former governor of Arkansas.
But by the debate’s end, they knew a lot more — and liked what they saw. ….
Fetters and Holland were among 29 GOP voters from the Des Moines area assembled here by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and political consultant, and by Fox News.
“Huckabee is hitting it out of the park with these people,” Luntz, a Fox contributor, said as he listened to comments from this small but influential group of voters, whose reactions will be featured on Fox News.
Interestingly, Governor Huckabee mentioned Luntz in our interview on Thursday. The transcript appears at Heading Right this morning, and he talked about how the debates have helped his visibility:
GH: Unfortunately the only thing that has been the criteria, up until now, has been money raised. I think the bigger issue is how money has been spent; what we’ve done with it. I think we’ve have done more with less which is, frankly what people would like to see out of their government. But what has happened is the debates clearly put me in a position that folks were able to see that I have a message that I could articulate it. That really was a huge boost and I think that every analyst who viewed the debates felt that I helped myself the most. Frank Luntz, in fact, tested that with an audience and actually was able to quantify that for Fox News Network and that’s been good for us.
Huckabee’s upward momentum in Iowa comes as a surprise. The Romney campaign has worked hard and spent a lot of money in Iowa to maintain a lead over Rudy Giuliani, but as the Post reports, that lead isn’t bolstered by a great deal of enthusiasm. Only 41% of his votes feel very committed to Mitt at the moment. Rudy is only a point ahead of Fred Thompson in the race, and both McCain and Huckabee come five points behind Fred.
For Huckabee, this looks like the first step of a breakout from the second-tier pack. His experience as Governor made him the most likely candidate to stretch towards the front-runners, and his gentle manner and conservative philosophy makes him an attractive candidate. Huckabee could make himself the conservative alternative, especially if Fred takes too long to get started and McCain can’t turn his campaign around.
Make sure you read the transcript at Heading Right. He gives a clear-headed view of the war and its scope and consequences, and still feels comfortable enough to tease his interviewers about Billy Jack as a response to Barack Obama’s Pakistan statements. It’s easy to see why he may be making a breakout.