Huckabee wins round one

January 3, 2008 8:08:52 PM PST
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the opening contest for the Republican presidential nomination, relying heavily on support from fellow evangelical Christians and the message that money shouldn't matter in politics.

Huckabee campaigned on a common-man theme that hope and optimism matter most, upsetting wealthy rival Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who spent millions to boost his profile, turn out voters and attack the former Arkansas governor on television.

"People really are more important than the purse," he told about 300 supporters at a hotel in Des Moines. "Tonight, we proved that American politics is still in the hands of ordinary folks like you."

Huckabee faces a tougher challenge in Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, where Romney is better-known, being from neighboring Massachusetts, and has spent more time. Huckabee began running television commercials there two weeks ago.

Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister before entering politics, was relegated to also-ran status when he started campaigning nearly a year ago in Iowa.

He was considered a favorite of evangelicals, but as a former small-state governor sometimes at odds with the GOP establishment, Huckabee was dismissed as someone who couldn't assemble the money and organization needed to win.

In August, his surprisingly strong second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll helped him begin to shed that image and start a slow ascent in state polls. At the straw poll, Huckabee was aided by supporters of the "FAIR tax," a proposal to eliminate federal income taxes in favor of a 23 percent national sales tax that he has embraced on the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, Romney's first-place finish in the straw poll was written off as expected since better-known rivals Rudy Giuliani and John McCain had decided to skip the contest.

Huckabee enlisted national evangelical Christian leaders to help him rev up Iowa pastors and churchgoers and began running TV ads defining him as a Christian conservative. By December, he had surged ahead of Romney, whose Mormon faith made many evangelicals uncomfortable.

Evangelicals helped Huckabee come in first, according to entrance interviews by The Associated Press and the television networks. More than half of GOP voters said they were born again or evangelical Christians, and nearly half of those supported Huckabee. Among non-evangelical voters, Romney led by at least 2-to-1.

More than a third of Republicans said it was important to have a candidate who shared their religious beliefs, and a majority favored Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor also performed strongly among those who identified themselves as very conservative.

Romney managed to narrow the gap in polls by running negative spots about Huckabee's record on taxes, illegal immigration and clemency for criminals. But it wasn't enough.

Earlier this week, Huckabee said he would respond to Romney with attack ads of his own, then changed his mind and pulled the commercial. He still played the spot for the media, ostensibly to prove he had really made it.

Huckabee's conservatism has a softer edge; he often says he is conservative, but he is not mad about it.

"It's not hating those who are in front of us," he said Thursday. "It's loving those who are behind us."