Iowans Start Choosing Favorites

Michael Barone

12/3/2007 12:01:00 AM - 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.

Meanwhile, Iowa Democrats may shake up their party's race. Iowa polls have long shown a close three-way race with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. In late November polls, ABC-Washington Post put Obama 4 percentage points ahead, ARG had him 2 points up, Rasmussen showed Clinton up by 2 points, and Strategic Vision had them tied.

Edwards trailed the leader in each poll by just 3 to 8 percentage points. He has been campaigning there for four years, and Obama has had more staff and has spent more money there than Clinton for most of the year.

It's suddenly looking quite possible that Clinton could lose in Iowa, and her lead over Obama in New Hampshire has declined from an average of 19 percentage points in September and October polls to 13 points in November polls. It could decline further or disappear if Obama wins in Iowa, and a two-candidate race would ensue.

It's less clear that Edwards could capitalize on an Iowa win in New Hampshire. He hasn't polled above 15 percent there since May, and in 2004, after a solid second-place finish in Iowa, he finished fourth with a miserable 12 percent in New Hampshire.

Of course, the contests could turn out the way many Washington insiders have long expected -- the methodical Clinton winning easily and quickly; the well-financed and well-organized Romney, propelled by Iowa and New Hampshire victories, fending off Giuliani, McCain and Thompson. But the 200,000 or so Iowans who have so much to say about who will be president for all 303,000,000 of us may have other ideas.