Huckabee’s Post-Debate Bounce

How far can Mike Huckabee take this thing?

That's the question after the debate here. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain insiders tell me they'd be glad if the former Arkansas governor won the Iowa caucuses, because that would humiliate Mitt Romney, who has invested so much time and money there. Well, after the debate and a chat with Huckabee, here's my advice to the mayor and the senator: be careful what you wish for.

In a breakout performance, Huckabee matched his surge in the Iowa polls, and elsewhere, with a confident, easygoing performance at the CNN YouTube debate. He shrewdly stayed out of the Rudy-Romney eye-scratching ("You never try to stop a dogfight," he said afterward), eloquently defended his support for college scholarships for illegals ("we are a better country than that"), and, when asked "what Jesus would do" about the death penalty, came up with the laugh line of the evening. "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office," the ordained Baptist preacher said.

Tongue in cheek, Huckabee even offered Rudy help on whether each word of the Bible is literally true. (The former New York mayor, who once considered the priesthood, did fine.)

Huckabee is no rube; he is a practiced, focused politician with communications skills that are equal to or exceed those of any of his rivals, Republican or Democrat. His serious weakness—and it is a big one—is his utter lack of foreign policy or military experience or exposure. In the end that may be fatal. In the meantime, he is complicating the calculus of the race.

This is the complex bank-shot phase of the campaign. In this extraordinary multicandidate field, with five legitimate contenders (counting Fred Thompson) and perhaps a sixth (Ron Paul), each has to carefully calculate the consequences of attacking or buddying up.

Each is envisioning what a two-way race would look like—that is, who his final foe would be.

The debate showed their strategies. Rudy's imperative, for example, is to prevent anything definitive from happening until next Jan. 29, when Florida, where he has lots of support, goes to the polls.

He sees Florida as his springboard to Armageddon Day, Feb. 5, when 21 states vote, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. So he wants anyone other than Romney to win Iowa (on Jan. 3), New Hampshire (on Jan. 8) and South Carolina (on Jan. 19). Whether he can stall things that long is highly questionable, but that's his theory.

That means, essentially, hoping that Huckabee wins Iowa, perhaps McCain wins New Hampshire and … and this is where the theory breaks down: Huckabee is making a major play in South Carolina now. As he consolidates the support of evangelical Christians across the Bible Belt he is going to be a major force in the South.

It is not clear that Romney will lose New Hampshire. While they grouse about it, New Hampshire voters tend to support politicians from Massachusetts in presidential primaries—Mike Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and John Kerry, to name three. But for Romney to hang on there, he has to beat back not just Rudy but also a renascent McCain—which explains Romney's cringe-inducing insistence in the debate on prolonging a discussion with the former war prisoner on the question of torture. McCain's strategy may be the least complicated in the GOP field: revive the straight talk and hope for New Hampshire.

To have any shot at all, Thompson has to win South Carolina, which is why he used his TV ad time in the debate to attack Romney and Huckabee—arguably his two main challengers there.

For the most part, Huckabee is trying to let others carry the load of attacking Romney in Iowa (where Huckabee now leads in some polls). He is largely skipping New Hampshire; anything he gets there is gravy. He can play the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger card, responding harshly to attacks, but not initiating them. He has a squadron of 500 bloggers that swarms in response to any charge made against him. So far, so good.

Huckabee may be a preacher, but he is no choir boy. He is a mix of humility and high-strung ambition. He is out to prove to the world that he is not a man to be underestimated just because he worked his way through an obscure Bible college in Arkansas.

He seemed mildly irritated when a reporter in the post-debate spin room asked him if he would be a good vice-presidential running mate. "I'm leading in Iowa now," he said. "You ought to be asking me if I'd pick any of these other guys to be my running mate." He added, "I think most all of them are fine people." Key word: most.

Chatting after the debate, Huckabee was nonchalant—and did not seem surprised—when told that a flash poll of viewers had judged him the overwhelming winner Wednesday night. Gena Norris (wife of Chuck) congratulated him on the wonderful "aura" that he exuded onstage. He didn't seem surprised by that either.

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