The Republicans' Accountability Moment

The Republican Party had an accountability moment last night in Iowa.

Following two generations of ever-widening clout by Christian conservatives, last night's convincing victory by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee provided a warning to the establishment wing of the national Republican Party that it may no longer be able to pass off its preferred candidates to the party's most loyal supporters. In this largely-white, rural heartland state, where insurgent conservative candidates of the past have done well but usually finish second, Huckabee's evangelical-led, 34 percent to 25 percent Bible-thumping of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sends to national party leaders a powerful signal that evangelical votes cannot be taken for granted.

"I never thought I'd be able to say I love a state as much as I love my home state of Arkansas, but tonight I love Iowa," Huckabee told his cheering supporters at a victory celebration in a ballroom at the Embassy Suites in downtown Des Moines. "A new day is needed in American politics just like a new day is needed in American government. Tonight it starts here, in Iowa, but it doesn't end here. It goes through all the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Huckabee's win proves that, at least in a low-turnout caucus event in traditionalist state, a resource-deficient but likable social conservative can defeat a well-funded corporate Republican with a dubious record on important partisan litmus issues. Though some of Huckabee's victory is surely attributable to his unconventional campaign tactics and self-effacing charms -- his release in late autumn of a disarmingly funny television ad featuring action film star Chuck Norris brought national attention to his campaign -- personality alone cannot explain his victory. And although three of the other five top-tier contenders were effectively eyeing other upcoming states on the primary calendar -- John McCain, New Hampshire; Fred Thompson, South Carolina; and Rudy Giuliani, Florida -- even in what was effectively reduced to a two-man race with Romney, Huckabee's win is significant because of its 9-point margin.

Hand-wringing from other corners of the conservative movement commenced quickly. "Mike Huckabee's victory in the Iowa caucuses is bad news for the Republican Party," Richard Viguerie, the Republican direct mail pioneer, said ominously in a statement released late last night. "He is a good man, but with a Big Government heart. He is the most liberal of all the Republican presidential candidates on economic issues."

Fears of a Huckabee nomination also worry the more libertarian elements of the Republican coalition. "Bush courted Evangelicals for eight years using issues such as gay marriage, only to let them down by dropping those issues once in office," writes Ryan Sager, a New York Post online columnist and author of The Elephant in the Room, a libertarian critique of the direction the GOP is heading. "Huckabee is riding the resulting wave of Evangelical discontent."

Earlier in the day, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told Byron York of the National Review, whose writers and bloggers have been issuing scathing critiques of Huckabee for weeks, "We're going up against a loose confederation of fair taxers, and homeschoolers, and Bible study members, and so this will be a test to see who can generate the most bodies on caucus day." That Romney lost that test, with entrance polls showing that about four in five Huckabee supporters are self-described evangelicals, caught even the state's senior most Republican by surprise.

"I was surprised because I thought maybe the grassroots organization of a Romney campaign in a caucus situation, not necessarily in a [primary] election, would make a difference, but it seemed to not be able to overcome the enthusiasm of the Huckabee supporters," Republican Sen. Charles Grassley told me, moments after the networks called the race for Huckabee. "Huckabee as a personality was very Midwestern and fit in with Iowans. People can relate to him … I think they felt a loyalty toward Huckabee as a person who came up the hard way."

Republican pollster Frank Luntz gushed over Huckabee. "The man had no money for advertising, he had no money for direct mail, he had no money for any of the traditional political campaign paraphernalia," said Luntz. "Mike Huckabee did so well because of his debate performances, and not because of the ads and not because of direct mail and not because of the telephone calls." Noting that Republicans will conduct three presidential debates in the next seven days, he added, "Just watch Huckabee's [national] numbers after that."

At the victory celebration, supporters explained what compelled them to vote and even volunteer for Huckabee. Kim England, 49, and her husband Rick, 59, both customer service representatives from Des Moines, discovered Huckabee long before the governor started generating statewide and national buzz. In late summer, they listed five criteria -- including support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and opposition to gun control and abortion -- and then read online about all the candidates from both parties before choosing Huckabee. "We were looking for a moral fit," she said, adding that the couple did not see the widely-discussed Norris television ad until long after their decision.

The story of 38-year-old barber Scott Sales is more revealing of the power of Huckabee's personal touch. Sales commutes about an hour each day from Pella, Iowa, to the Executive Forum Barber Shop he owns in downtown Des Moines. As proprietor of a business located above and in the same building as Huckabee's headquarters, Sales dropped by one day about three months ago with some pastries to welcome all the busy campaign staffers working nearby; many started getting haircuts from him. Intrigued by their passion, Sales took home a copy of Huckabee's autobiography, From Hope to Higher Ground and was instantly sold. "I read his book and said, ‘He's too good to be true,'" say Sales. "He's been called by God to be president."

Sales eventually ran into Huckabee outside the campaign office, and Huckabee asked if he would give him a haircut. Huckabee later showed up with one political reporter in tow. Three months later--following a bizarre but apparently effective press conference this past Monday during which Huckabee announced he was pulling a negative ad produced to attack Romney before it ran, then showed it to the media anyway--Sales now more famous client arrived for a third trim, but this time with approximately 75 members of the national media crammed into his small shop.

Several questions now emerge as the race shifts to New Hampshire, which conducts its first-in-the-nation primary in just four days.

First, will Huckabee fade as a phenomenon by next week, as iconoclastic New Hampshire voters send the sort of stick-in-the-eye message to Iowans that they did in 1980, 1988 and 1996? If that happens, the contest could shift to a battle between a still well-funded Romney and a surging McCain, whose most famous win came against George W. Bush in the Granite State in 2008. Or is Huckabee a political phenomenon with a broader appeal whose win here will catapult him to the sort of primaries run that John Kerry used four years ago after his much narrower Iowa victory to capture the nomination?

Beyond the horse-race implications, what are the intra-party effects of Huckabee's solid win? Does Huckabee become a too difficult to pass over option for the vice presidential nod should he not win the nomination outright? Has he permanently ruined Romney's presidential bid, despite the fact that the next contest is in Romney's home region? And given that McCain fell flat despite so much late attention, finishing slightly behind (13.2 percent) Sen. Fred Thompson and his lackluster campaign (13.4 percent), did Huckabee manage to dampen McCain's effort to revive his straight-talking shtick?

The answers to these questions remain unclear. But one thing is certain: They are the sorts of questions that are rarely asked, or at least not with such intensity and such a heavy dose of palpable apprehension, by the rest of the conservative movement and the Republican Party nationally.

This piece has been corrected--the "stick-in-the-eye message to Iowans" was last sent in 1996, not 2004.

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