January 4, 2008

Iowa and the GOP: Looking Back and Forward

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With the results coming in in Iowa, Huckabee has not just won, but he won decisively. But what does this mean for the national race? After all, neither Reagan, Clinton, nor the younger Bush won in Iowa. On the other hand, Kerry definitely came into Iowa as the underdog against the powerful frontrunner Dean, but he also came out as the winner not only of Iowa but eventually the Democratic nomination. The number of interpretations of the Iowa outnumbers the number of the candidates, so here are some thoughts to make sense of this.

Although Huckabee has captured the race in Iowa, he still has a long way to go to capture the nomination. He largely rode the back of evangelicals to win Iowa–to the point where one unaffiliated GOP analyst compared it disparagingly to a Robertson victory in Iowa–but he walks into a strange new land in New Hampshire, a land where evangelicals hold considerably less influence. Also, he absolutely must capitalize on his victory on Iowa to gain not just money, but resources and staff. Without that, he cannot survive Super Tuesday. And he has to stop making embarrassing gaffes. Not knowing about the new intelligence estimate on Iran 24 hours after it came out, mistakenly claiming Pakistan was under martial law, not knowing he crossed the picket lines to appear on Leno, Huckabee has to get his act together.

In spite of this, however, Huckabee has a strange quality. No one would have predicted his victory a month ago. For all his weaknesses, he had a strange ability to turn out the vote without both money and resources, using not only his evangelical appeal but also his populist appeal and his skills with a guitar. He has many challenges ahead, but some of his detractors now also had laughed off the possibility of his victory in Iowa. And he has the support of Chuck Norris.

For Romney, everybody keeps focusing on how much money he spent even though he lost, but that analysis takes such a one-dimensional look at Romney. After all, each candidate has their own strengths. Huckabee commands the evangelicals. McCain is the venerable veteran and veteran Senator. Giuliani is the 9/11 candidate. Thompson was heralded as the savior of the GOP over the summer. Paul is the Internet celebrity of the century. Romney entered with none of that notoriety, but he does have strong business credentials and the money to go along with it. So to some extent, he needed money not only to make the unknown candidate known but also potentially to fight against the misconceptions against a Mormon candidate. However, the results of Iowa do mean the most to him since he has heavily invested both money and time in not only Iowa but New Hampshire. He still has a very good chance in New Hampshire, and a New Hampshire victory will revive his campaign, but if Romney can not win in the neighbor of the state he once governed, he will find himself in deep, deep trouble. What remains to be seen is how Iowa will affect his prospects and strategy in New Hampshire.

For the McCain campaign, two surges are going on: the military surge he supported, and the surge in his support. McCain has endorsements from almost every paper in New Hampshire, and he even leads the national polls for the first time. Left for dead back in the summer, McCain has defied all expectations. McCain certainly benefits from a Huckabee victory since he finds himself in a two-way race against Romney. On the whole, his prospects look good both in New Hampshire and nationally, but McCain has been riding on a roller-coaster ride, and no one knows where he will stop.

As for Giuliani, he has laid quite low for now, but he eventually will reemerge into the picture. He pretty much has given up both Iowa and New Hampshire but instead hopes to capture large states like Florida and California later in the race. Whether this strategy will work or not remains to be seen.

But in the end, no one knows what will happen. Normally only three candidates per party come out of Iowa, and that may be the case for the Democrats. Yet on the Republican side, double the number of candidates will emerge: Huckabee, Romney, McCain, Giuliani, Thompson, and Paul. Among those six, only Thompson and Paul have a long shot to win. Beyond that, Huckabee’s victory in Iowa did not decide the Republican race; it blew it wide open.

Mike Wacker is The Sun’s Assistant Web Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].