Wherever it is that the Republican establishment meets, someone has just called for another case of scotch. Mike Huckabee, the insurgent candidate with his populist message, radical tax-overhaul plan, and light foreign-policy experience, has won the Iowa caucus. Now the Republican campaign heads to New Hampshire, where another insurgent, John McCain, is leading the polls. When the GOP’s two top candidates are targets for Rush Limbaugh, the party is not in a happy place.
The establishment would have preferred to see Mitt Romney emerge victorious. Romney was once well-ahead in both of those states, running a campaign in which he claimed that he was the true Reagan conservative. Romney made an enormous commitment to Iowa, and he wildly outspent Huckabee in television advertisements ($6-to-$1) and on the ground. He also spent the last several weeks running ads criticizing the Arkansas governor.
Why did he flop so badly despite his advantages? It’s hard for Romney to spin Iowa as a quirky victory by a pet of evangelical voters because Romney himself was doing his damnedest to be taken in by the same evangelical voters. The truth is that he himself was the problem. Whether it’s his Mormonism, his alacrity at going negative, or the suspicions about of his newly adopted hard-right views, there’s something about Romney that doesn’t work for voters. He just couldn’t close the deal.
The Huckabee win surprised Iowa veterans on Romney’s staff. Romney forces were convinced that if their negative ads didn’t beat Huckabee, Romney’s superior organization would. Hours before the results came in, I talked to a senior Romney aide who said they saw no signs of Huckabee organizing in the areas where it would be most likely. “Unless it’s happening under the radar, it’s not happening,” said the adviser. What ended up happening is that Huckabee’s volunteers beat Romney’s professionals by putting together a network of church activists, home-school advocates, and Second Amendment defenders. Romney is now entering Phil Gramm and Steve Forbes territory—joining candidates who spent enormous sums of money trying to win their party’s nomination and failed spectacularly.
In New Hampshire, Romney gets another chance with a more moderate Republican electorate, one more attuned to the kinds of views he defended before he started his heavy pandering to the religious right. How will Huckabee do up north? His fair-tax plan is not popular, and social conservatives don’t make up much of the GOP primary vote in the Granite State. He’s currently running fourth in the polls. If he finishes ahead of Romney there, the Republican establishment will need more than a stiff drink.