Friday, January 4, 2008

They like Mike

Whether or not you agree with his politics, you gotta give Mike Huckabee credit: The man has the shrewd sense of a survivor, a finely-tuned appreciation for the timing and rhythms of television, and a mastery of campaign aikido that has elevated his presidential quest from the asterisk to the boldface almost overnight.

On Thursday, and almost in lockstep with his Democratic counterpart, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Huckabee captured the Iowa Republican Caucus, defeating challenger Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, by nine percentage points, and officially assuming the GOP campaign's Golden One status. For now, anyway.

"[T]onight is a celebration for everybody on our team, so many of you who have traveled from all across America to be here," Huckabee said at a raucous victory rally in Des Moines. "I'm amazed, but I'm encouraged, because tonight what we have seen is a new day in American politics. A new day is needed in American politics, just like a new day is needed in American government. And tonight it starts here in Iowa.

"But it doesn't end here. It goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue one year from now."

It's left to Mitt Romney to pick up the pieces and figure out what happened. The Iowa aftermath should be especially galling for Romney, who outspent Huckabee by 15:1, only to settle for second place in the first contest that matters. If Romney'd been an employee in the private sector and presented his boss with that kind of return on investment, he'd have been fired.

Huckabee took a not-so-subtle shot at the Romney ATM campaign, saying "people really are more important than the purse, and what a great lesson for America to learn. Most of the pundits believe that when you're outspent at least 15 to 1, it's simply impossible to overcome that mountain of money and somehow garner the level of support that's necessary to win an election.

"Well, tonight we proved that American politics still is in the hands of ordinary folks like you and across this country who believe that it wasn't about who raised the most money but who raised the greatest hopes ... " A classic example of the martial art that calls for using your enemy's strength against him.

In Huckabee's speech one could also detect a reach across the aisle, what sounds like the barest outline of a pitch toward -- what, coalition government? "Americans are looking for a change," the former Arkansas governor said. "But what they want is a change that starts with a challenge to those of us who were given this sacred trust of office so that we recognize that what our challenge is to bring this country back together, to make Americans, once again, more proud to be Americans than just to be Democrats or Republicans. To be more concerned about being going up instead of just going to the left or to the right."

From Iowa it's on to New Hampshire, a state where Christians tend to hide the light of their religion under a bushel and keep it to themselves, hewing to the idea of faith as a private matter. Unilke the more upfront style of the evangelicals that helped Huckabee power to victory in Iowa. "In New Hampshire, only 18 percent of Republicans consider themselves evangelicals," Newsday's Craig Gordon wrote, "and many Republicans here take a dim view of candidates who wear religion on their sleeves." Gordon reported that analysts give Huckabee a probable third-place finish in New Hampshire.

But still, Huck's in a strong position. Finishing third in a state whose residents aren't his natural constituents isn't a bad thing. He's got a win. Romney needs one to stay viable, and Mitt's counting on regional affiliations to get him over in New Hampshire. That would seem to be a lock. Maybe.

For now, the momentum is with Huckabee. All eyes are on him to see if he can duplicate the impact of that TV masterstroke, when he went on the "Tonight" show the night before the Iowa caucuses and won it all the next day. It wasn't quite like Babe Ruth apocryphally picking his home-run spot or Joe Namath guaranteeing a Super Bowl win, but not bad for a novice to the national political game.

Some will no doubt get the water ready in case Big Mike wants to go for a walk.
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Image credit: Huckabee: David Ball

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