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Running on hope

Unlike front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton , Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama aren't selling electability or inevitability -- they're selling hope.
/ Source: National Journal

Unlike front-runners and , and aren't selling electability or inevitability -- they're selling hope. Will that be enough to get them the nominations?

Friends and foes alike comment on the discipline of the well-oiled machine that is the Clinton campaign. Even Giuliani, well-known for sounding off at critics, has been remarkably disciplined in both his style and message. These strategic attributes may make Beltway pundits and wonks swoon, but they aren't qualities that have much appeal for voters. It's like the difference between getting a vacuum cleaner for Christmas versus a nice piece of jewelry. Sure, you really don't need the jewelry, but it's much more fun to open on Christmas morning.

Clinton backers suggest that Iowa voters are practical people, the kind more likely to pick the vacuum. But until this year, the caucuses were held in late January, long after the New Year's confetti and Christmas trees were packed up. Does the fact that voters will be deciding on their choice during the season of "hope" and "inspiration" serve to propel Obama's message in a way that wouldn't happen at any other time of the year? Telling voters to use their heads rather than their hearts during this time of year is a tough sell.

What happens beyond Iowa? Inspirational candidates, we're told, rarely survive the rigors of the campaign trail. Obama has the resources and infrastructure of an establishment candidate, not a long shot. Yet the livelihood of inspirational candidates is often determined by voters who feel their other choices are either unacceptable or unappealing. This is where the Democratic and Republican primaries look very different.

Polls indicate Democrats are more optimistic about the election and feel more positively about their candidates than Republicans do. In the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 45 percent of Democrats said they are more enthusiastic about this election than usual, compared to just 29 percent of Republicans who said the same. Clinton and Obama received favorability ratings among Democrats that are significantly higher than any Republican candidate got from members of his own party. Clinton's favorability rating dropped a bit since October, but it is still 27 points higher than Giuliani's. Obama's is 13 points higher.

What does this mean? For one, Democratic voters don't feel as if their choice for president must be based on whom they dislike the least. That undercuts the argument that a Democratic candidate can win simply by coalescing the "anti-Clinton" vote. More important for the New York senator, however, is the intensity of her support. The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll in New Hampshire showed 53 percent of likely Democratic primary voters who named Clinton as their preferred nominee said they would definitely vote for her. Forty-one percent of Obama supporters said the same. And in the CBS/NYT poll, 58 percent of Clinton supporters said they "strongly" support her, compared to 48 percent of Obama supporters who said the same.

This is not to say that Obama can't translate his soft support into strong support over the next few weeks. But the Illinois senator can't count on those voters staying away from Clinton, either.

The Republican primary is harder to explain. GOP voters, unlike Democrats, say they want experience over change. Yet two new surveys (CBS/NYT and CNN/Opinion Research Corporation) show Huckabee, one of the least-experienced candidates -- especially on the all-important issue of terrorism -- surging. How did this happen?

Huckabee is giving Republicans something other candidates haven't: a reason to vote for someone, instead of against (whether that's Clinton or another Republican). Huckabee's favorability rating in the CBS/NYT poll isn't impressive on the surface. Just three in 10 Republicans rate the former Arkansas governor positively, compared to 10 percent who rate him negatively. But better-known (and better-funded) Republicans aren't doing much better. Giuliani is the most "popular," at 41 percent favorable versus 28 percent unfavorable. Arizona Sen. John McCain is at 37/32, and former Massachusetts Gov. is at 36/16.

Then there are Huckabee's many liabilities, most of which are unknown to the universe of GOP primary voters. But is Huckabee's baggage (Wayne DuMond, AIDS, immigration, taxes) any heavier than Giuliani's (pro-choice, Bernard Kerik, Iraq Study Group, Judith) or Romney's (landscaping, flip-flopping, Mormon)?

The big difference among the three is money, specifically the amount each candidate has (or doesn't have) to frame those flaws. With Huckabee still so undefined among Republicans nationally (42 percent in the CBS/NYT poll didn't know enough about him to rate him), how his story is told (and by whom) matters.

In Iowa, however, the caucus-going world is so small and well-informed that simply overwhelming voters with TV ads -- as Romney may try to do -- may not be enough. It's hard to see the core socially conservative base going to Romney (Mormon speech or not). Instead, the bigger question (especially given the recent nasty weather there) is whether the base is motivated enough to show up at all.

The only way to undermine Huckabee is to detach him as much as possible from the "nice guy" image that makes him appealing to a more diverse GOP audience. That's not going to be easy. Insiders have argued that he has thin skin, and that once an opponent gets under it, he could get Huckabee to lash out. But we haven't seen that yet.

Whether Obama or Huckabee can take his message beyond Iowa is still unknown. But the fact that even the most partisan of voters in both parties are attracted to candidates with positive messages seems to be an important sign: A campaign based simply on running against something -- whether it's Clinton or George W. Bush -- isn't going to win the White House.