Thursday, January 10, 2008

For Republicans, Iowa Better Be an Aberration

By Stuart Rothenberg

Three months ago, the Democratic presidential nomination looked up for grabs, but the party had a narrow favorite, an identifiable frontrunner. Today, after Iowa but before New Hampshire, the Democratic nomination looks up for grabs, but the party still has an identifiable frontrunner — only it’s a different candidate.

Three months ago the Republican contest looked like a chaotic brawl, with no clear favorite and a bunch of scenarios still in play. Today, looking at the Iowa results and contemplating Tuesday’s Granite State primary, the GOP contest looks like a chaotic brawl, with no clear favorite and a menu of potential scenarios.

Something big happened on the frozen turf of Iowa on Thursday, but the state’s caucuses still were only the first test of a process that, for both parties, could drag on at least a bit longer than many assumed.

By now, you’ve read and watched at least three days of post-Iowa reporting and analysis. You know who voted for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), how Mike Huckabee (R) finished first ahead of Mitt Romney (R) and what Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have at stake in New Hampshire. So what’s left to discuss? November.

Obama’s win makes him the instant Democratic frontrunner, though one victory is not a strong basis for beginning work on a Democratic National Convention acceptance speech.

Huckabee’s victory makes him one of his party’s credible contenders for the GOP nomination, but nothing more. South Carolina may be fertile territory for Huckabee later this month, but there are far too many question marks about his candidacy and appeal to see him as anything more than that.

The former Arkansas governor may well have hit his high water mark in the nation’s first presidential contest. We will see.

But one thing does seem pretty clear: If it’s Obama versus Huckabee in November, Republicans might want to prepare a bomb shelter and store plenty of food, water and reading material. That general election would more likely than not be a massive blowout for Democrats.

Politics, like basketball, is a lot about matchups. Can your taller guards post up the opposition’s short backcourt and take advantage of the mismatch? Can your quick team press the opposition when it’s bringing the ball up court, quickening the pace of the game and forcing the other guys out of their half-court offense?

Even if you aren’t a basketball junkie, you probably get the point. You want to take advantage of your strength and exploit the other team’s weakness, rather than allowing them to do that to you.

For Huckabee, Obama is a true nightmare. For Obama, Huckabee is a godsend.

Obama is a change candidate extraordinaire. Just look at him. Listen to him. Huckabee wants to be a change candidate as well. But he’s a pale reflection of Obama, and not just in skin color.

If Obama has an obvious weakness (and almost every politician has one), it’s his lack of experience and a possible weakness on national security matters. Democratic voters in Iowa didn’t care a lot about that, preferring to focus on him as a vehicle for bringing about change in this country, but that doesn’t mean Republicans won’t try to exploit that weakness.

Indeed, if the GOP ultimately nominates McCain or Rudy Giuliani, you can easily imagine how they would contrast their experiences with Obama.

But Huckabee is unlikely to be able to take advantage of Obama’s potential vulnerability. Sure, Huckabee served as governor of Arkansas for more than two full terms, but that doesn’t give him the credentials to raise questions about Obama’s ability to lead the war against terror or protect American national security.

Huckabee certainly could make the “executive experience” argument. But the last guy who had executive experience at the state level, Republican George W. Bush, hasn’t exactly been a rousing success as chief executive.

Anyway, Huckabee would have serious problems holding together the Republican coalition against Obama, with major defections from the GOP’s country club/business wing. Huckabee’s economic populism simply is at odds with too many in his party, which is why, in winning the nation’s first caucuses, he lost Republicans earning more than $100,000, those living in urban areas and those for whom a candidate’s religious views were not seen as terribly important.

It isn’t difficult to imagine Obama cleaning up in the suburbs and Huckabee taking little more than religious conservatives and populist Democrats. This assumes, of course, that Obama continues to emphasize a unifying message of hope, rather than a heavily left-of- center message of economic redistribution and liberal social policy.

True, Huckabee is a happy warrior, and that might be a considerable asset against someone like former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who sounds too angry, or Clinton, who often seems stiff. But against Obama, that potential Huckabee asset evaporates. Obama’s upbeat message of bringing people together, which would be magnified by the historic development of an African-American as president, would overwhelm whatever appeal Huckabee’s happy warrior style might have.

Finally, an Obama nomination would create a turnout headache for Republicans. Party strategists have been counting on Clinton’s nomination to produce a massive GOP turnout, so if she isn’t on the Democrats’ national ticket, Republican operatives will be forced to spend energy and resources making sure that Republicans vote in November.

Both parties probably still have some surprises in store, so anyone who reads too much into the Iowa results is asking for trouble. And for national GOP strategists, almost any matchup is preferable to Huckabee-Obama.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 7, 2007. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.