Republican Campaign Still Includes Many Possible Storylines

by Stuart Rothenberg November 18, 2007 · 11:05 PM EST

For months, I’ve been urging caution about assessing and overanalyzing the two presidential races too early, and now we see why.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who has no money and no standing in national public opinion polls, is making a strong run in Iowa, and if he continues to get traction in the Hawkeye State’s January caucuses, he’ll change the Republican race dramatically.

That’s because Iowa and New Hampshire continue to be crucially important in the contest for the GOP and Democratic nominations, and a wild card development in one party’s Iowa caucuses could impact the subsequent, yet still unscheduled, New Hampshire primary and change the fundamental nature of that race.

Huckabee’s long-term viability within the Republican race without a surprisingly strong showing in Iowa is nil, and his lack of resources and campaign organization in other states still make it difficult for him to take advantage of a stronger-than-expected showing in the caucuses, even with an approving national media in his corner.

But a strong second-place Huckabee showing in the contest (to say nothing of a win over heavy spending, well-organized frontrunner Mitt Romney) would be the story of the night — unless of course Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) were to lose in the Democratic contest that evening.

And that’s worth emphasizing. With each party having a contest on the evening of Jan. 3, they will both be fighting for media attention. A surprise in one could overshadow a less surprising outcome in the other.

Huckabee’s move in Iowa appears to be documented in a number of places, but polling the caucuses isn’t easy and conclusions should always be tentative because of turnout questions.

But if Huckabee were to pass Romney, it likely would be lights out for the former Massachusetts governor, who has spent heavily on TV, organized the state better than any other Republican in the presidential race and staked out a momentum strategy of winning Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. Romney’s goal is to establish the inevitability of his nomination and short-circuit former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign even before it has really begun.

If Romney doesn’t win in Iowa, it’s difficult to imagine him holding his ground in New Hampshire. After all, if he flops in the place where all of the knowledgeable insiders from both parties say that he is invincible, how could he possibly withstand the media frenzy after finishing second, especially to another conservative?

And a Romney loss in the state probably would put a stake through the heart of the argument that “organization” always is the name of the game in Iowa.

A top three finish of Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani could create an interesting scenario, with Romney and Huckabee seeking to emerge as the conservative favorite and Giuliani enjoying the battle on the right.

Even a poor showing by a second-tier GOP hopeful in Iowa could affect the Republican race.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson didn’t exactly bolt out of the gate when he entered the Republican contest in September. Yes, his national poll numbers were good, and he showed quick strength in some state polls, but his actual campaign never reached the standard set by those polls.

More recently, Thompson has been something of a bust, if we are all to believe the surveys that show his support dropping. Still, Thompson somehow just won the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee, and he has been running around the country presenting himself as a true-blue conservative.

The longer Thompson stays in the race, the better for Giuliani, who can only benefit from a number of GOPers wooing the right’s votes. Conversely, a fourth- or fifth-place finish in Iowa by Thompson, behind a couple of conservatives (including Huckabee) probably would make the former Tennessee Senator irrelevant in New Hampshire, reducing the number of candidates who would divide the conservative vote.

Under normal circumstances, Giuliani’s strategy of jump-starting his campaign in Florida, in late January, would be political lunacy, and many seasoned observers rightly remain skeptical of it. It’s a strategy based on weakness, not strength, and it makes the former mayor prisoner to the outcomes of races in which he is participating half-heartedly. Giuliani advisers are only fooling themselves if they believe that unbroken early momentum doesn’t matter.

But this GOP race isn’t like most presidential contests, and as dubious a strategy as Giuliani’s is, it could still work because of the peculiarities of this Republican contest.

Ultimately, the Republican race still could boil down to a fight between a moderate, such as Giuliani, and the winner of the race within a race to become the preferred candidate of conservatives. Under that scenario, the former New York mayor would still have problems in a one-on-one with a conservative, and a momentum candidate like Huckabee could be more formidable than his campaign bank account now suggests.

So if you’ve tired of the early coverage or already suffered burnout, have no fear. You can now happily forget all of brouhaha about some summer debate or first-quarter fundraising. Finally, real voters in Iowa are starting to examine the candidates with an eye to picking a president — or at least a presidential nominee. Just keep at least one eye on Huckabee.