WASHINGTON — One can tell a lot about the state of the '08 GOP field when the candidate getting the most buzz these days has less than $1 million in the bank and is not even breaking into the high single digits in national polling. Mike Huckabee's strong showing among Christian conservatives has tongues wagging about a primary that just won't seem to gel around a front-runner. But can we really put Huckabee into the top tier? Is he anything more than a spoiler? What can his rise (or fall) in early states like Iowa tell us about the fate of the other Republican contenders?
For anyone who's watched him in the debates, Huckabee's appeal is obvious. He's a gifted orator whose comfort in his own skin (interesting given that he's lost more than 100 pounds) translates well to TV audiences. But more importantly, he's giving GOP voters, specifically social conservatives, something that few other candidates are: a message that emphasizes who he is rather than who he is not. While Mitt Romney's and Rudy Giuliani's pitch to the base is centered heavily on bashing Hillary Rodham Clinton, Huckabee's appeal is centered on his own record and story.
Just as then-Sen. John Edwards did in '03, Huckabee is contently sitting on the sidelines while the other candidates throw punches at one another. This may explain his recent jump in the polls in Iowa. Survey trends from pollster.com show the former Arkansas governor had been basically flat for most of the year, but his upward trajectory since August has been the most dramatic of any candidate.
An endorsement from recent dropout Sam Brownback could help sustain Huckabee's momentum. It won't bring much in the way of money or obvious votes (the Kansas senator was one step above an asterisk in the most recent Des Moines Register poll). But Iowa watchers say that Brownback had a strong grassroots organization among the pro-life community. And there's no love lost between the Romney and Brownback campaigns.
Even so, does Huckabee really have a shot at winning Iowa? Here's where comparisons to Edwards get a little tricky. Like Huckabee, Edwards was trailing in the polls in October 2003, but he was even further behind his main rivals than Huckabee is today. A poll [PDF] from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (D), conducted Oct. 2 through Oct. 13, had Edwards in a distant fourth place with the support of just 8 percent of respondents. Yet, at this point in 2003, Edwards had a lot more money. At the end of 2003's third quarter, Edwards had almost $5 million in the bank; Huckabee has just $651,000. Even more importantly, reports NBC News/National Journal's Carrie Dann, the chatter among Iowa insiders on both sides of the aisle is that Huckabee has actually spent less time in the state than one would expect. In fact, says Dann, some are questioning why he hasn't just moved permanently to the state.
Huckabee is not without enemies, particularly in the anti-tax wing of the party. It remains to be seen if they will allow Huckabee to continue creeping up in the polls without launching an attack on him. Remember, the Club for Growth already ran ads against Huckabee in the run-up to the Ames straw poll. Since the Club would be satisfied to have Romney, Fred Thompson or Giuliani as the nominee, it doesn't have to worry about the unintended consequences of its strategy.
What about the Romney campaign letting some of the air out of Huckabee's tires? As it looks today, the rest of the GOP front-runners seem to be leaving Iowa for Huckabee and Romney to fight over. Romney can't afford anything but a big win over his underfunded opponent in order to keep his front-runner status. But Romney also has to protect his tenuous lead in New Hampshire and prove his viability in the South with a good showing in South Carolina. Huckabee's appeal is much more limited in a place like New Hampshire, where economic conservatives are a larger chunk of the electorate. A decent showing could give him a lift going into more friendly territory in South Carolina. All of this assumes, however, that he has the infrastructure to both raise and properly spend an infusion of cash.
As John McCain, Romney, Giuliani and Thompson continue to throw elbows, Huckabee may end up as the only guy without a black eye, which is reminiscent of Edwards in 2004. What is even more remarkable about Edwards is that even after a bloody general election, he was able to emerge relatively unscathed. This sets Huckabee up well as a potential running mate, especially if the nominee is a Northeasterner looking to shore himself up in the Bible Belt. Huckabee's populist economic message could also help give the GOP ticket a boost among once Republican-leaning but now disaffected voters in Ohio. Of course, there would be concern that his socially conservative positions could turn off moderate suburbanites.
Whether Huckabee is able to keep up a head of steam until early January is unclear, but his appeal today is understandable. Many primary voters know they are ultimately going to have to eat their vegetables and vote for a candidate they either don't love or who doesn't line up with them on 100 percent of their issues. But at this point, they sure like being able to eat the ice cream that Huckabee's offering.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.