Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The unexpected often happens in presidential races, and this election cycle could be no different, except it may be happening in both parties.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was previously known as a chubby Republican politician who lost a lot of weight and then hit the talk-show circuit to talk about the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Now he is known as the once dark-horse candidate who is suddenly leading in Iowa and running a close second to GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani in the national polls.

It is a strange twist of politics that has propelled him to where he is right now. The former Baptist preacher draws much -- if not most -- of his support from religious conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere. But he is scorned by other sectors of his party for a dreadful record on spending and taxes, his praise for President Bush's proposed immigration reforms, which included a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, for advocating an end to the trade embargo with Castro's Cuba and for pushing a national sales tax.

If this were not enough to end his chances of getting the GOP's nod, there is his role in the release of a convicted rapist who went on to murder a Missouri woman.

Whether Huckabee can go the distance seems doubtful. He has no national campaign organization to speak of, he is badly underfunded and he is near the back of the pack in New Hampshire.

The story on the Democratic side is in many ways far more interesting. Sen. Hillary Clinton, the national front-runner, continues to slip in the presidential-preference polls in the early nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Her chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, has seen his numbers rise in all these states -- and in the national polls, too.

In the meantime, there are reports of discord in Clinton's campaign organization and growing concern that her husband, Bill Clinton, may be doing more harm than good. Insiders say he is unhappy with her chief advisers and has tried to oust Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, who has never run a national campaign before.

Doyle has been dispatched to spend the bulk of her time in Iowa, where Obama has overtaken Clinton in the polls.

The tumbling numbers tell the tale. Clinton was clinging to a 6-point lead over Obama in New Hampshire last week. In Iowa, he edged ahead of her by a few points, but among voters most likely to attend the caucuses, he led her by 35 percent to 29 percent, according to a Newsweek poll.

In South Carolina, Obama has surged into a narrow lead, largely as a result of the state's large bloc of black voters.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.