WASHINGTON — Evangelical Republicans in Iowa chose one of their own in Mike Huckabee.
The question is whether the former Southern Baptist minister is strong enough to win outside friendly Iowa territory, and go the distance to the nomination.
That test begins immediately as Huckabee heads to New Hampshire, where he will run head-on into town meetings full of secular voters, and John McCain. New Hampshire holds the nation's first primary in just five days.
Huckabee also will face a rematch 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.
"Values voters spoke loudly tonight in Iowa," said Greg Mueller, a GOP strategist and former aide to conservative Pat Buchanan in the 1992 presidential race. "Huckabee also demonstrated an authenticity; he ran as a genuine candidate. Now, he's got to use that bully pulpit to broaden his populist appeal in New Hampshire."
The former Arkansas governor has 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 in Iowa. Romney, meanwhile, struggled to overcome skepticism about his Mormon faith and his shifting positions on issues that cultural and religious conservatives hold dear.
Values trump electability
In a poll conducted for The Associated Press of voters entering Iowa's caucuses, values and authenticity outranked electability in importance to Huckabee voters. Six in 10 of Huckabee's voters said the most important quality in picking a candidate was someone who shared their values.
A third of Huckabee's supporters said he says what he believes, while fewer than one in 20 said they thought he had the best chance of wining in November.
Faith was a determining factor for many Republican caucus participants.
More than eight in 10 Huckabee supporters said they are born again or evangelical Christians, compared to less than half of Romney's. Nearly two-thirds of Huckabee backers also said it was very important that their candidate share their religious beliefs, compared to about one in five of Romney's.
Nearly half his supporters consider themselves conservative — about the same as Romney's.
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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-one-of-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.
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 back then, there is no establishment candidate this year and conservatives who make up the core of the GOP's base had nowhere to automatically turn in the run up to 2008. President Bush is barred from seeking another term, Vice President Dick Cheney doesn't want the job and no obvious successor exists.
Thus, conservatives spent much of the past year searching for a candidate to embrace; they found flaws in each of the many candidates in the remarkably crowded GOP field.
Then Huckabee got a look.
Trailed in money, personnel, polls
He 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 out.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Liz Sidoti covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.
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