Arkansas ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee is shaking up the Republican race.
Think of the primary process as a tennis tournament. On the center court, in the semi-final, Rudy Giuliani is defeating John McCain in straight sets. But on the right court, low-seeded Huckabee beat Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback in the quarter-finals for the designation of "Christian Coalition" challenger - and now will face off against ex-Sen. Fred Thompson and Massachusetts ex-Gov. Mitt Romney in the right-court semi-final. The winner will meet Rudy in the finals.
Huckabee's national poll numbers are rising. Scott Rasmussen has him at 10 percent nationally and in third place at 18 percent in Iowa, where he trails Thompson by 1 percent and Romney by 7 percent.
Thompson's campaign has been a disaster - from his comment that Osama bin Laden was entitled to due process to his refusal to sign a no-tax pledge. The average of the last five national polls (see realclearpolitics.com) shows him trailing Rudy, 28-18, and only barely ahead of Romney and McCain.
Thanks to heavy advertising, Romney leads in Iowa and New Hampshire - but his edge is dwindling, and he's never broken 16 percent in any national poll.
Why doesn't this charismatic, articulate candidate catch on? Part of it is blatant anti-Mormon bigotry. But part of it is his flip-flop-flip on abortion: As a candidate i n liberal Massachusetts, he switched from pro-life to pro-choice; then, as he got ready for this race, he switched back to pro-life again.
Huckabee, who has risen rapidly without either money or organization, is the most interesting phenomenon in either party's race (and the only surprise). He finished second to Romney in the Ames, Iowa straw poll with 18 percent. That's significant because you had to pay $35 to vote. Romney wrote out checks for anyone and everyone, but Huckabee said, "I can't afford to buy you. I can't even afford to rent you" - and came in strong anyway.
More recently, he swept last weekend's Values Voters convention among those who appeared in person. (He lost by less than one point overall to Romney, whose tally included a mass of Internet votes.)
Why the Huckabee boomlet? A gripping, humorous, passionate orator, he brings a spiritual dimension to public-policy problems. His ideas are interesting. Want lower health-care costs? Tackle obesity and smoking. Education reform? Music and art education are just as important to our national creativity as science and math.
He has a good chance to be the front-ranking challenger to Giuliani in the national primary on Feb. 5. He might beat Rudy - or at least earn a VP designation, because Giuliani will be anxious to appeal to Christian-right voters.