After South Carolina: Mike Huckabee

So while I'm at it, here's another reckless prediction: 

If Mike Huckabee finishes first tonight, he may become the only Republican since 1980 to win South Carolina and not end up as the nominee.

I contradict history at my own peril, but this much is clear: Huckabee would have a much harder time than McCain springboarding from South Carolina to a decisive win on Super-Duper Tuesday. For starters, he has yet to expand his base beyond evangelicals. In Iowa, he won 46 percent of the evangelical vote, and if he wins tonight, they'll be largely responsible. But while there are enough evangelicals in the Palmetto and Hawkeye States to propel a candidate to victory, the landscape is vastly different in Florida, California, Illinois, New York and many of the 22 other Feb. 5 states. (See Michigan, where he won only 16 percent of the vote.) In fact, Huckabee's early appeals to social conservatives--this week he provoked Fred Thompson's ire by calling the Constitution a "living, breathing document" while arguing for anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage amendments--have convinced some moderate Republicans that he's a religious narrowcaster. After Florida, he'll only have one week to allay their suspicions.

And he'll have no money or organization to do it with. On the trail, Huckabee often argues that he's the David to his rivals' Goliaths. That's all well and good in Iowa and South Carolina--you can win in the early states with strong stumping skills and passionate supporters. But this year's "national primary" may turn on expensive, rapid-fire ad buys and get-out-the-vote efforts, making it very tough for Huckabee to keep up.

That's assuming he wins tonight. If he loses, Florida becomes the firewall. But he's currently in fourth placethere, and it will only get harder to climb in the polls after losing to McCain, who's already in first. Especially with a rich, rejuvenated Romney and single-minded Giuliani standing between him and the frontrunner. The veep slot--he's a great fit for McCain or Giuliani--never looked so good.

I don't mean to be all doom and gloom. A big win tonight could separate Huckabee from the field and catapult him to a surprise victory in the Sunshine State. At that point, he may have so weakened his rivals that he'll be the last man standing on Feb. 6.

But the odds against that outcome are long. More likely, a Huckabee win in South Carolina makes Florida an evenly matched four-man race--and increases the chances that the Republican race continues to the convention.

 

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