Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, were the big winners in the January 3 Iowa caucuses. The Republican Party may have been the big loser.
While the Democrats swing behind Obama, the fresh-faced freshman senator with less national experience than any other presidential candidate, Republican primary voters swing behind Huckabee, a charismatic populist with an edge. For Democrats, any move away from Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is a move toward victory. Clinton is a screeching, grating candidate who thrills no one and annoys virtually everyone. Obama is smooth and likeable -- and just as importantly, African-American -- even if he spouts meaningless slogans that appeal to the fawning media elite. Obama combines the strength of image with the hard-left policies that unite his backers.
For the Republicans, any move toward Huckabee could be a move toward the electoral cliff. Huckabee is clearly the most personally attractive of any of the Republican candidates. He's a family man; he's quick on his feet; he's got the country feel voters adore. He has the charm of Bill Clinton without the personal baggage.
There's only one problem: Charm may not be enough. To defeat Barack Obama, the GOP nominee must have personal appeal and gravitas. Huckabee is long on the former and disastrously short on the latter.
Huckabee could indeed be the GOP nominee. While his critics claim he has no chance at the nomination, he's currently leading in South Carolina and running a close second to Rudy Giuliani in Florida and California. If Huckabee comes in third in New Hampshire, wins South Carolina and pulls out a win in Florida at Giuliani's expense, he will likely become the favorite to win the Republican nomination.
Huckabee's dramatic rise demonstrates his political aptitude. In an election focused on change, Huckabee has positioned himself brilliantly. He has made himself the outside-the-Beltway candidate of choice by attacking mainstays of the conservative pundit class. He harps on the gap between Wall Street and Main Street. His opponents, he says with some credibility, are either Washington insiders or Big Business insiders; he, by contrast, is a man of the people.
Meanwhile, Huckabee obscures his own positions. In doing so, he has made his personal authenticity his chief asset. He sometimes sounds like both Ron Paul (he famously bashed the Bush administration's "arrogant bunker mentality") and John McCain (in the same essay, he suggested boosting troop levels in Afghanistan). He has signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes, while simultaneously criticizing the income gap between CEOs and their workers. But the man is witty and likeable.
Here's the problem for the GOP: Huckabee's genuine Christianity and genial personality may win him the Republican nomination, but they likely won't win him the general election. If Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, he has as much personal charm as Huckabee. And while Huckabee's down-home style and ardent faith appeal to voters, they also make him easy for opponents to caricature as a parochial bigot, particularly when he admits that he hasn't read up on the latest National Intelligence Estimate. Barack Obama, inexperienced as he is, looks positively well-informed when compared with Huckabee.
John McCain is old and cantankerous -- but he'd make Obama look like a snot-nosed, ignorant kid fresh out of law school. Rudy Giuliani has more skeletons in his closet than Tim Burton -- but his September 11 image would dramatically overshadow Obama's pitiful internationalism. Mike Huckabee has a sense of humor and a winning smile -- but so does Obama. And Obama has the full force of the media behind him. If Iowa highlighted the major party nominees, 2008 may be the Democrats' dream year.