GOP: McCain vs. Huckabee

John McCain and Mike Huckabee have been exceedingly polite to each other. After Iowa, McCain praised Huckabee as a man who has "run a very good, smart, positive campaign," and he has repeatedly praised Huckabee's "decency" and "integrity." Huckabee gushed that McCain "is a hero in this country. He's a hero to me." They aim their scorn at Mitt Romney. The lesson of the Iowa caucuses, said McCain, was, "one, you can't buy an election in Iowa, and two, negative campaigns don't work"—a clear dig at Romney, who outspent Huckabee by about 20 to 1 and bought a slew of ads trashing his opponent. In his faux-innocent, aw-shucks way, Huckabee took the most wicked shot at Romney about a month ago, asking, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the Devil are brothers?" (He later apologized.)

Openly praising each other while slyly knifing a mutual foe can work for a while. Romney makes a useful foil. As depicted by McCain and Huckabee, the former governor of Massachusetts is the robo-candidate, the plastic pol who will say anything and spend as much as necessary to win. McCain and Huckabee, meanwhile, are the "authentic" ones, the anti-politicians who represent the change Americans crave, or seem to, judging from the turnout at the Iowa caucuses. But what if Romney goes down in New Hampshire and McCain and Huckabee roar into South Carolina on Jan. 19 as the two front runners? Will the mutual back-scratching end and the attack ads begin? Will McCain and Huckabee become the very thing they profess to abhor while savaging each other?

McCain and Huckabee face the maverick's dilemma. It is a fine strategy to run as an outsider, to lament Washington's sorry state, to pose as the face of change. But once victory and power seem possible, there is a temptation to pick up the old cudgels of politics—the negative ads, the slick consultants, the hired guns who believe that politics is war, and forever want to fight, fight, fight. The high road always looks like the way to go for reformers—but it has a way of dipping down into the bogs of politics as usual. Both McCain and Huckabee are refreshingly free-spirited and capable of rising above the dreariness and sordidness of the stump. But both are human, at times a little too cute, and susceptible to self-defeating behavior.

McCain knows about the risks of veering off onto the low road, or at least he should. In 2000 he started strong, riding his Straight Talk Express. While George W. Bush, the establishment favorite, seemed to be overhandled and prepackaged, McCain merrily bounced along in his bus with a large gaggle of reporters, saying whatever came into his mind and reaping endless free media. When he committed a verbal gaffe, the press by and large let him get away with it, because he seemed so spontaneous and honest. McCain was disarmingly frank about the political game, but essentially positive. He upset Bush in New Hampshire, winning by a comfortable 19 points.

Then came South Carolina. The Bush campaign fired volleys of negative ads, while an underground smear campaign accused McCain of, among other things, fathering a black child out of wedlock. (Bush was never directly linked to the slime job, but it was widely assumed that McCain's assassins were operatives from the old Lee Atwater machine, employed by two generations of Bushes to spread dirt in South Carolina and elsewhere as required.) Confronted with mudslinging mean enough to make his wife cry, McCain made the mistake of listening to his own handlers while they devised ways to get even. His chief strategist at the time was Mike Murphy, a clever, profane consultant who once had a gag license plate stamped GO NEG and whose avowed "cardinal rule" as a political consultant was "Don't Fall in Love With the Meat" (meaning the candidate, though Murphy did fall for McCain). As recounted in a Washington Post story by Howard Kurtz in March 2000, Murphy retreated to a hotel room two weeks before the South Carolina primary "to do what he did best: fight fire with fire. He was determined to write a tough negative ad to blunt Bush's aerial assault on McCain. He had been through the exercise hundreds of times; you had to punch back. They couldn't let Bush smear McCain. The attacker had to pay a price."

Murphy's ad accused Bush of "twisting the truth like Clinton." McCain was uncomfortable with the ad, but went along. He is no stranger to wrestling with the forces of darkness and light, and has (at least) two sides. He is capable of the kind of profound forgiveness sometimes shown by people who have truly suffered, as he did at the hands of the North Vietnamese during his five and a half years of captivity. But he also has a reputation as a hothead. Though his advisers in 2000 did caution him against losing his temper, McCain became angry around the time of the South Carolina primary. He visibly seethed at Bush in a debate and lashed out in a speech at evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance." McCain was egged on by Murphy, who called the "agents of intolerance" speech a "home run." Murphy also secretly launched a phone campaign strongly implying that Bush was a religious bigot—and got caught at it by the press. McCain's once lofty campaign seemed to sink into the mire of business-as-usual politics. Bush was able to recover from his loss in New Hampshire and go on to win the nomination.

Last week, asked by NEWSWEEK and other reporters about going negative in the 2000 South Carolina primary, McCain simply denied it. "No, never did," he said. Pressed by reporters—who asked, "Are you going to try to stay above the fray completely going forward?"—McCain seemed uncharacteristically evasive and finally answered, "We'll respond selectively." (Murphy is not working for McCain this time around, and could not be reached for comment.) McCain seems to blame his defeat in South Carolina more on pandering than on going negative. During a pre-primary debate with Bush in February 2000, McCain tried to finesse his position over whether the Confederate flag should be permitted to fly over the South Carolina capitol. In his memoir, McCain describes himself as "dishonest" and a "coward" for fudging on the issue of Old Dixie and writes, "I paid a penalty for that—and I should have."

A year ago, friends of McCain wondered if he wasn't pandering again in pursuit of the presidency. He seemed to almost fawn over President Bush (who still controls a huge fund-raising apparatus) and tried to make peace with the religious right, traveling to Falwell's Liberty University. At times he appeared subdued, worn—and old (he is 71)—as he tried to ingratiate himself with the Republican establishment. His campaign was badly run, squandering money. His longtime top adviser John Weaver quit, and some political experts pronounced his campaign to be essentially dead. Last summer McCain acknowledged to NEWSWEEK that he was "never quite comfortable being the front runner, per se." He went back to his more natural role as an underdog.

Over the past year, McCain's stump speech never really changed—the same impish, self-deprecating jokes ("As a former drunken sailor, I resent being compared to members of Congress"), the same victory-or-else stand on Iraq. Hard-core conservatives remained wary of him as soft on immigration and social issues, and too friendly to liberals. But as the surge worked to depress violence in Iraq, McCain's unyielding hawkishness seemed less quixotic. Last week Chuck Douglas, a former Republican congressman and McCain's vice chair in New Hampshire, recounted to NEWSWEEK how, in November 2006, he and other top advisers had warned McCain that "Iraq was the third rail and we did not think he should be walking on it." McCain had listened, nodded and rejected their advice. He made a comment that later became a campaign talking point: "I'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war." Unyielding support for the war in Iraq may yet prove to be an electoral albatross, but for the moment it is being seen as proof of McCain's integrity.

McCain, who essentially ignored the caucuses in Iowa, had further good fortune in the rise of Mike Huckabee. The former Baptist preacher was the perfect candidate for a flanking attack on McCain's most serious rival in New Hampshire, Governor Romney. Intent on winning both Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney was sucked into a wasting war against Huckabee in Iowa. While Romney poured about $7 million into ads and organized an elaborate turn-out-the-vote network, Huckabee was able to cruise about rural Iowa with his wife and his press secretary and depend on a builtin network of evangelical preachers, home-schoolers and flat-taxers. (Huckabee's campaign did not even have a staff photographer to capture the moment he learned he had won in Iowa—his wife, Janet, passed her tiny Canon digital camera to an aide who snapped the "official" photo.) On the trail and in the studio, Huckabee seemed loose and funny, not sanctimonious. He had none of the saccharine qualities sometimes associated with big-time evangelists. He was a genius at getting free media, leaving Iowa the night before the caucuses to fly to L.A. to appear with Jay Leno. He charmed the audience, playing the bass guitar with the band, and got off a zinger aimed right at Romney: "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with than the guy that laid them off."

Huckabee struck a populist chord that seemed much more up-to-date than the old-time religion preached by Democrat John Edwards, who sounds like a figure out of the Great Depression or even earlier—William Jennings Bryan, railing against the money-changers in the election of 1896. But Huckabee's inexperience on foreign policy may catch up with him—he became confused about Pakistan's borders and was clueless when asked about a National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had given up building a nuclear weapon. More dangerous politically, perhaps, is the risk that Huckabee will start listening to professional campaign consultants.

Last month, as his campaign started to take off, Huckabee hired an old hand in the political game, Ed Rollins, as a top adviser. As writer Peggy Noonan pointed out, Rollins tried to impress young reporters by announcing that he was "the grizzled veteran," the "old battler" who would like to sink to his knees and "shoot Romney in the groin" and "punch his teeth out." Rollins in fact made a negative ad to run against Romney on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, but Huckabee says he had an "attack of conscience" and decided at the last minute not to run it.

What happened next may offer a clue either to Huckabee's naivet?—or his guile. Huckabee played the ad to a room full of reporters, who could not contain their derisive laughter. Huckabee thereby ensured that the ad would be rebroadcast over and over on the news programs and on YouTube, allowing Huckabee to cut down his opponent on the airwaves without spending a dime to buy air time. Huckabee insisted that "cynical" reporters wouldn't believe his act of conscience unless they were shown the offending ad, but his remarks struck some reporters as wildly disingenuous.

Huckabee was in a playful mood as he headed for a state where his born-again background will not help much. In Iowa, 60 percent of the Republicans who turned out were evangelicals. New Hampshire is very secular. "We're going to have to convert a lot more people in New Hampshire in the next five days," Huckabee joked. "We're going to have a big tent revival out on the grounds of the Concord state capitol, get them all converted to the evangelical faith, then we'll win." McCain also clowned around. Why were voters taking a second look at him? "Because of my eloquence, charisma, good looks and talent," he quipped. A reporter asked, what happens if he doesn't win? "Suicide," he deadpanned. "I might have to go back to the United States Senate."

Both Huckabee and McCain have a bit of the prankster in their makeup. McCain was a wild man in school (he graduated near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy), which he freely acknowledges. Huckabee smiles playfully when he describes living in a triple-wide trailer on the grounds of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion while it was being restored. Living in a trailer was cheaper than renting a house, he says, and his constituents could joke, "I almost rear-ended the Governor's Mansion on the highway." Stunts to amuse and attract voters are to be expected of both men. The question is whether they will stoop to darker tricks when the going gets rough, as it surely will. Romney and Rudy Giuliani have huge war chests. Whoever survives the contests of January will have to engage Giuliani in Florida on Jan. 29 and on Superduper Tuesday, Feb. 5. Giuliani is gambling by waiting that long to truly enter the fray. But when he does, he will almost surely not hesitate to use attack ads. By then, the lovefest between McCain and Huckabee could be long over.