Obama, Huckabee make their case in Iowa

Salena Zito

11/25/2007 12:00:53 AM - Salena Zito

Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama stand on political precipices in Iowa.

With the wind of surging campaigns at their backs and New Hampshire on the other side of their current Iowa momentums, they have nowhere to go but forward, to see where potential Iowa caucus wins might take them.

Both are men in forward motion in their respective parties. With 40-odd days left until the first precinct count in Iowa, they are beating expectations and inevitability by pulling ahead in polls.

But what does it all mean and how did they get here?

Start with Obama. His rise to the top of the Democrats’ heap can be attributed to three things: money, a top-notch organization and that key message of change that is so appealing to Democrats. From the moment he stepped into Iowa, he has siphoned supporters from John Edwards, the party’s original change-agent, and never looked back.

If Obama beats Edwards and Hillary Clinton in Iowa, then Edwards is out and Clinton is on the ropes. Despite her massive lead in national polling, an Obama win makes her more vulnerable than conventional wisdom dictates. Deep concern still exists in the Democrats’ psyche about Clinton’s ability to win nationally and her polarizing effect on voters.

Winning Iowa does not mean Obama clinches the Democrats’ ticket; Clinton would survive such a loss -- no one should ever bet against her. Yet Obama has one heck of a chance to be the nominee if he is Iowa’s choice in January.

Right now, he needs a better game plan in New Hampshire, where he has failed to soak up Clinton’s eroding support. While she dropped 7 percentage points in the latest University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll, the candidate who gained wasn’t Obama. It was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

For Obama to have a sustainable campaign out of Iowa, he must pick away at Clinton’s vulnerabilities and supporters. He also must reach out to Richardson, Edwards and Chris Dodd supporters and convince them he can be a winner for the party, not only on primary night but in the general election.

From left field to right field and the Iowa insurgency of Mike Huckabee: He has climbed to the near top of the GOP pile with considerably fewer resources than his Democrat counterpart; his money is tight and so is his organization. He has relied on shoe leather, likability and old-fashioned retail politics.

Conservative Christians make up 40 percent to 50 percent of the GOP turnout in Iowa and that explains a lot. He’s a Southern Baptist preacher, so folksy and plain-speaking that he has become the new John McCain of old. Tack on Republicans’ queasiness with their field of candidates; their unsettled psyche has given an alternative like Huckabee a second glance.

Huckabee attributes his surge in the Iowa polls to his authenticity as a candidate. “Well, to be coarse, Iowans like their BS to be on the ground so that they can step around it, not (have it) thrown at them by candidates,” he says. “They want to know, when a person is speaking, that he is telling what he really believes.”

If Huckabee is the story coming out of Iowa, he needs to remember that not all previous Republican stories out of Iowa did all that well. Remember 1988? Bob Dole and Pat Robertson were first and second in Iowa while George H.W. Bush ran third.

Huckabee is spending the bulk of his time in Iowa now, with brief forays to New Hampshire. Yet like Obama, he has no plans on being a “one-hit wonder.”

“I know I need to go to New Hampshire with momentum,” he says. “I cannot go there from a point of inertia.”

For either man, Iowa wins will be short-lived celebrations. If both win, smart money has them on airplanes to New Hampshire before their victory nights are over.

Iowa can be a notoriously bad predictor of political futures. Not only is it not particularly representative of American demographics, it is a caucus state appealing to activists in both parties.

If they win, Obama and Huckabee need to make the case that neither is an Iowa anomaly and that they can deliver the general election to their parties.