A Mutually Beneficial Partnership for N.H., Candidate?
CONCORD, N.H. -- One question hangs over the shooting star that is the Mike Huckabee campaign: Even if the former Arkansas governor pulls off an upset with a win or strong second-place result Jan. 3 in the Iowa GOP caucuses, what then? Most urgently, how can he translate that into a respectable showing only five days later in the New Hampshire primary, when Huckabee is operating on such a tight budget and devoting so little time anywhere other than Iowa?
These are major roadblocks, without a doubt. But Huckabee's visit to New Hampshire this past weekend offered a reminder that he will have at least one factor in his favor here if he continues to surge: New Hampshire's sense of itself and its place in the political process.
Many voters here -- like their counterparts in Iowa -- know that their first-in-the-nation primary status is under siege and that the best argument in its defense is that the small state and its committed citizens allow candidates to make their case in a direct fashion, one not dictated solely by the size of campaign treasuries. And they know that this argument has more credibility when the rest of the country sees the state upsetting establishment heavyweights in favor of financially strapped upstarts.
Until now, such a scenario has seemed unlikely this time around. On the Democratic side, Sen. Barack Obama is considered an underdog against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but he has far too much in the bank to really meet the classic definition. Among Republicans, the multi-millionaire Mitt Romney has maintained a steady lead in state polls over the hardly penniless Rudy Giuliani. As for Sen. John McCain, it is hard to be an upstart the second time around. Even Ron Paul, with his eye-popping fundraising, is not exactly the hardscrabble challenger of yore.
But as Huckabee swept into the state, riding another well-reviewed debate performance and hugely encouraging poll results in Iowa and elsewhere, one could sense here some of the old excitement: This is us, this is what we do that no one else can.
At a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Concord on Friday, local residents were tickled to see Huckabee, a candidate who talks about being "one generation removed from dirt floors and outdoor toilets" and who had raised only $2.3 million in the first nine months of the year, swarmed by a dozen television cameras and many more reporters. (For comparison's sake: When Huckabee visited Northern Virginia in August, after finishing a surprise second in the Ames, Iowa straw poll, the only media he drew were one newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, one cable news crew and a Swiss TV team.)
"This what the New Hampshire primary is all about: Someone seen as a second-tier candidate a couple weeks ago turns it on," said Robert Boyce, a former state senator who is leaning toward Huckabee, after seeing him speak at the luncheon. Added Dan Troy, of Dunbarton: "It makes this whole primary exciting, to have someone who doesn't have a whole pile of cash. It shows that you can't necessarily buy the presidency."
Huckabee for now is reveling in that role, even perhaps to the point of playing the modesty card to excess -- he jokes about the fact that only now is he able to keep audiences in their seats to the end of a speech, an unlikely notion given his speaking skills. He charmed the chamber crowd with tales of his humble roots and of his unlikely rise as a Republican in Arkansas when it was still Democratic territory.
He also showed again what an unusual platform he is offering as a Republican in 2007 -- railing (gently) against "plutocracy" and invoking the Founders' ideal of equality; warning against the dangers of undue fear in the fight against terrorism; and preaching the virtues of medical prevention and music and arts education. Among those cheering in the audience were several prominent local Democrats, including the state's governor, John Lynch, who got to know Huckabee at national governors' functions and who gave him a warm introduction and stayed throughout.
Of course, having the support of the Democratic governor is not necessarily a blessing in a Republican primary. And if Huckabee pulls off an upset in Iowa, he will still have to overcome New Hampshire hurdles such as its relative dearth of evangelical voters and its tendency, on occasion, to subvert the results out of Iowa.
"He really seems to have some movement in the campaign, which is pretty exciting," said chamber President Tim Sink. "To be honest, I don't know much about him, and I like what I heard today. But there are still so many layers still to peel back."
-- Alec MacGillis
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