Michael Barone

Every so often, I page through my copy of the Constitution, searching for the section that says Iowa and New Hampshire vote first. I've yet to find it. But Iowa and New Hampshire are set to lead off the presidential voting on Jan. 3 and Jan. 8. Right now, Iowa, where about 200,000 people -- around 10 percent of registered voters -- are expected to attend the party caucuses, is producing great ruction in both parties' races.

The most startling news comes on the Republican side, where Mike Huckabee has pulled about even with Mitt Romney.

Huckabee, who finished second in the August straw poll in Ames, never topped 14 percent in polls taken before October. But a late-November Rasmussen poll showed him leading Romney 28 percent to 24 percent, and in the four most recent polls, Romney has an average lead of only 27 percent to 26 percent.

Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister as well as a former governor of Arkansas, and he seems to draw most of his support from the roughly 40 percent of caucus-goers who are evangelical Protestants. They account for two-thirds of his support in the latest ABC-Washington Post poll.

A Huckabee victory in Iowa would seriously damage Romney, who has held leads, often wide leads, in Iowa polls since he started running TV ads there in the spring. It would hurt Fred Thompson, who needs the votes of religious conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere. It would help Rudy Giuliani, who has been running third in Iowa polls and second in New Hampshire to Romney, whose support there could evaporate if he fails to win in Iowa. It might help John McCain, who is banking on duplicating his 2000 win in New Hampshire.

Huckabee may have a hard time capitalizing on an Iowa win if he is unable to expand his appeal beyond evangelical Christians. New Hampshire is much more secular than Iowa and seems to have a distaste for Southerners. George W. Bush lost and Al Gore barely won there in 2000; Bill Clinton lost there in 1992; Jimmy Carter won in 1976, but with only 29 percent of the vote.

Huckabee's considerable charm and wit may take the hard edge off for many who find his emphasis on religion unnerving -- he fended off one hostile question in the CNN/YouTube debate by saying that Jesus was too smart to run for office. And there's a large evangelical base in South Carolina and Florida, which vote Jan. 19 and Jan. 29.

But it's not clear whether Republican voters in other states, eager to nominate a candidate who can win in November, will embrace a candidate who will be portrayed by many in the media as an extremist on cultural issues and who has little experience relevant to protecting the nation -- one issue on which Republicans have often held an advantage over Democrats.

Michael Barone

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2011 THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM