Paul Greenberg

For once a presidential contest turns out to be morality play: The candidate who stuck by his principles won.

And he did it on a bare budget. Mike Huckabee was outspent in Iowa (as he says over and over) 20-to-1. His last-minute decision to pull a TV spot bashing Mitt Romney cost his campaign something like $150,000 - which is how much it had invested in the ad campaign.

That's a big hit when you're a Republican candidate for president not named Mitt Romney. But the Huck decided to stick to the high road. His decision may have come late, it may have been clumsy and costly, but it was the right one. He outpolled his wealthier, smoother, harder-hitting opponent by a decisive 35 to 24 percent while turning the other cheek.

If this had been a movie, the ending election night would have been too sappy to be credible. But that's what it happened: a Frank Capra screenplay turned real. Hey, what a country. Hey, what a state Iowa must be.

Mike Huckabee's show of character didn't seem to hurt him at all. It may even have helped. Any move that upsets a cynical old pro and brass-knuckles fighter like Ed Rollins, his campaign manager, can't be all bad. Good for him. He deserved to win on the strength of that one decision alone. Sacrifice is the seal of principle.

The big winner in Iowa last Thursday was Barack Obama. Why not? Americans love a presidential candidate who's brand new even though we may not be sure what he stands for except novelty.

As for not knowing exactly where such a candidate stands on a multitude of issues, or what kind of chief executive he'd make, Americans may not really care, bless our hearts. If a candidate's politics are vacuous, then maybe he can unite all of us around that vacuum.

Hey, don't laugh. Didn't they say the same thing about Eisenhower before he was nominated and elected in 1952? Who knew how Ike stood on a multitude of hotly contested issues? ? (Not even after he'd been in office for eight years.) And yet he proved one of our most successful presidents.

Of course, unlike this junior senator from Illinois, the general did have some executive experience - as the German high command discovered after June 6, 1944. When he became commander-in-chief, it wasn't as if he were a buck private.

But none of that detracts from the romance of Barack Obama's story. The still racially fixated couldn't get over the results from Iowa Thursday night. Des Moines and Keokuk aren't Atlanta and New Orleans, you know. How much of Iowa's population is black - 2 or 3 percent? Yet a black man running for president stomps the competition.

The race-is-everything-in-America crowd couldn't get over it. Maybe they hadn't noticed that A.) times have changed, or B.) Barack Obama wasn't running as a black candidate - the way Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton do - but as an American candidate. The result? He received 38 percent of the vote. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton couldn't crack 30. In snow-white Iowa.

God bless America. Don't you love it when she surprises the kind of pundits who think that only race and/or racism count in this country?

What race is Barack Obama, anyway? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Like many other Americans, I stopped caring about that biographical detail one way or another long ago, even before Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas were coming onto the national political scene.

So when the Iowa caucuses go for two winners - one an Arkie and the other with a grandma in Kenya - so what? This is America. Here it's who you are that counts, not who you were. It's the content of your character, not the color of your skin, as a black preacher from Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr. once prophesied.

The victory of both these candidates in Iowa showed the importance of personality in an American presidential race. Hillary Clinton is doubtless searching for one at this very minute. But she's been through so many different personas during her long career and life, which in her case seem to be largely equivalent, it won't be easy to find one. Once again she may have to pick a ready-made self off the rack instead of developing one of her own.

It might turn out to be an interesting election year after all. Even a satisfying one for those of us who like morality plays.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.