Analysis: Can Huckabee go the distance?

January 3, 2008 9:04:54 PM PST
Evangelical Republicans in Iowa chose one of their own in Mike Huckabee.

"Wherever it ends - and we know where that's going to be - it started here in Iowa," the emboldened candidate proclaimed as he promised more victories in states to come.

But the looming question is whether the Southern Baptist minister turned decade-long Arkansas governor is strong enough to triumph outside friendly Iowa territory, and go the distance to the nomination.

That test begins immediately as Huckabee turns to New Hampshire, where he will run head-on into town meetings full of secular voters, and John McCain, the Arizona senator who has pinned his second White House bid on the state he won in 2000.

New Hampshire holds the nation's first primary in just five days, and Huckabee also will face a rematch there with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who desperately needs a victory in neighboring New Hampshire to prove his candidacy isn't crippled after an Iowa defeat.

Huckabee's improbable rise from underdog to leader upended the GOP race in the final weeks of the Iowa campaign. His ascent - like his ultimate triumph - was fueled by Christian conservatives who spent a year searching for a candidate to embrace before settling on Huckabee.

He made his religious beliefs and his rock-solid opposition to abortion, gay marriage and gun control central parts of his campaign - and it paid off. Romney, for his part, struggled to overcome skepticism about his Mormon faith and his shifts on positions on issues that cultural and religious conservatives hold dear.

"Values voters spoke loudly tonight in Iowa through Governor Huckabee's candidacy," said Greg Mueller, a GOP strategist and former aide to past conservative presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. "But his success was also due to his appeal as an authentic and genuine candidate that connected with middle America."

"Now, he's got to use that bully pulpit to broaden his populist appeal in New Hampshire," Mueller added.

In a poll conducted for The Associated Press of voters entering Iowa's caucuses, Huckabee voters indicated values outranked electability in importance. Six in 10 of his backers said the most important quality in picking a candidate was someone who shared their values, while a third of his supporters said he says what he believes. Fewer than one in 20 said they thought he had the best chance of winning in November.

Faith was a determining factor for many Republican caucus participants.

A significant chunk of Huckabee supporters - eight in 10 - said they are born again or evangelical Christians, compared to less than half of Romney's backers. Nearly two-thirds of Huckabee voters also said it was very important that their candidate share their religious beliefs, compared to about one in five of Romney's.

After a year of tumult, the Iowa race amounted to a classic David vs. Goliath battle, with a pair of former governors in a high-stakes slugfest for the coveted prize.

Huckabee appealed to the emotions of Iowa Republicans, with an I'm-like-you pitch and an emphasis on Christianity. Romney was the practical pick, an accomplished businessman with a powerhouse organization and a seemingly endless supply of money to go the distance.

McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson were in a tight race for third place, both seeking the bronze medal to claim the start of a comeback. Ron Paul, the long-shot Texas congressman with an anti-war, libertarian bent, captured more votes than Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who comfortably led in national polls for the better part of a year.

Iowa had the first say in the most volatile, wide-open GOP nomination race in a half-century, and the state's recent history bodes well for the caucus winner. It has chosen the Republican who eventually secured the nomination in the two most recent contested GOP competitions - George W. Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996.

But unlike those races, there is no establishment candidate this time. Conservatives spent much of the past year restless; they found flaws in each of the many candidates in the remarkably crowded GOP field.

Huckabee trailed his better-known rivals in money, manpower and polls all year before a surprise autumn surge vaulted him from the back of the crowded pack of candidates to the front. With a bare-bones campaign and modest fundraising, he bet his stellar communication skills and likablity would carry him to a win.

Romney, a self-made multimillionaire who poured more than $17 million into his presidential bid, sunk $7 million into Iowa advertising to emerge as the caucus leader for months. He pinned his hopes on his organizational strength and financial advantage.

In the end, the race for the gold medal in Iowa boiled down to message vs. money - and message won.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Liz Sidoti covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.