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Huckabee's Rise and Rise

Huckabee, the December surprise. (Reuters).

The most surprising conversations running through Republican circles this week are all about Mike Huckabee. As one veteran strategist put it in an e-mail message Monday morning, "I -- and I would suggest damn few others -- never anticipated you even asking [about Huckabee] this late in 2007."

Huckabee's rise is real, the result of months of dissatisfaction on the right with the rest of the Republican field. His success in Iowa, where he has dislodged Mitt Romney atop the polls, and in other early states, represents what another strategist calls "the revenge of the social conservative" wing of the party.

"It's the night before the prom," this strategist said, "and they've been sitting by the phone for a year, waiting for a date." Huckabee has come calling and they are responding.

Huckabee's rise is real for a second reason. He fills another vacuum in the Republican field -- which is that of a strong, southern conservative candidate. In 2005 and 2006, that role was to be filled by Bill Frist, the former Senate majority leader from Tennessee, or former Virginia senator George Allen. Fred Thompson thought he would be that candidate, and for several months last summer he was -- until he entered the race.

Thompson's campaign has fizzled from lack of energy, lack of a clear message and lack of visibility. It is no accident that Huckabee's rise has come at Thompson's expense, but to succeed, strategists say, Huckabee cannot allow Thompson back into the competition anywhere.

The big question is not whether Huckabee is real but whether he can make it all the way to the nomination. Will he ultimately prove to be a skillful spoiler, or a candidate with broad enough appeal to unify a party that is badly fractured?

The person most immediately threatened by Huckabee's rise is Romney and there should be clear concern among his advisers about whether he can regain his footing in Iowa quickly enough to prevent a potentially costly defeat there in just over three weeks.

Matt Rhoades, Romney's communications director, described Huckabee as a real threat now to win the nomination. But he offered this caveat: "Huckabee is leading in Iowa and with that lead comes much higher expectations and a greater degree of scrutiny of his weak position on immigration and his penchant for big spending and higher taxes."

Huckabee's path to the nomination begins with a victory in Iowa. Then he must capitalize on his southern roots in the South Carolina and Florida primaries in January. He also must hope that the Republican race remains a multi-candidate field through Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen states will hold contests.

Most strategists do not believe Huckabee is a good fit with New Hampshire's more socially liberal GOP electorate and therefore may not do well there even if he wins Iowa. But they agree that other candidates -- Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain -- will have much more at stake in the Granite State if the Arkansan comes out of Iowa victorious.

An adviser to one of the other GOP candidates put it this way in an e-mail message, "I think he can just watch to see if others stumble in New Hampshire or Michigan. Then he goes into South Carolina strong and tries to win there, setting up a shot to win Florida [on Jan. 29], maybe with a one-on-one with Rudy if it broke right for him. Then on February 5th, he tries to win regionally -- his home state plus Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, and maybe Missouri."

As Rhoades points out, however, Huckabee faced no serious scrutiny until about two weeks ago. He spent much of last week dealing with several potentially serious controversies. One involves a statement on a candidate questionnaire in 1992 in which he advocated quarantining AIDS patients. Another involves his role in the release of convicted rapist Wayne DuMond, who killed a Missouri woman after being let out of prison.

A strategist with a stake in the GOP nomination battle put it this way: "He is enjoying something akin to an announcement bounce right now. Until the past week, he has enjoyed mostly positive press and had seen almost no attacks from opponents. And he has faced almost no tough debate questions, allowing him to stay affable throughout."

The candidates with the most to gain in the short term from Huckabee's surge are Giuliani and John McCain. They could use his help in stopping the better-financed Romney because neither has been particularly successful in doing so over the past 11 months. McCain saw Romney as his principal threat when McCain was the presumed front-runner. Giuliani's campaign assumed the same once McCain faded over the summer.

"Huckabee may well advance to the nomination finals," said John Weaver, who was McCain's chief strategists until they had a parting of the ways last summer, "and in doing so accomplish something neither Rudy or McCain could do: eliminate Romney."

Giuliani and Huckabee are odd bedfellows in the race. Giuliani is out of sync with the social and religious conservatives in the GOP over abortion, gay rights and a messy personal life. Huckabee is out of sync with some economic conservatives over taxes and trade, and is softer on immigration than some of his rivals. As one strategist said Monday, Huckabee is "as unconventional to the Reagan coalition on those issues as some of the other candidates are on social issues."

But Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for President Bush's reelection campaign in 2004 and has now signed up with ABC News as a political commentator, believes Huckabee is doing well now for the same reason Giuliani has managed to lead most national polls of Republicans despite his views on abortion and gay rights.

"The biggest thing he's got going is the sense of authenticity that surrounds him," Dowd said. "That is the contrast [between him and Romney right now] in Iowa.

"Voters vote broader values. They don't vote issues," he added. Rather than looking for a candidate who lines up with them on every issue, they want a candidate who seems real. "McCain's biggest problem was that he lost a huge part of that authenticity and that brand. It wasn't as if Iraq hurt him. It was that Iraq seemed to represent a loss of his authenticity."

Huckabee, like Giuliani, benefits from the multi-candidate race on the Republican side. His support among Christian conservatives appears solid, but his appeal beyond that constituency appears far more limited. If and when the race narrows to two finalists, the question is whether he will be among them, and if he is, whether he can significantly expand his appeal to other parts of the party. In any case, he remains the surprise story in the still surprising GOP campaign.

--Dan Balz

By Web Politics Editor  |  December 10, 2007; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , B_Blog , Dan Balz's Take , Mike Huckabee , Primaries , Republican Party  
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