Officially, the two big winners of last Saturday’s Iowa Republican straw poll were Mitt Romney, who won the event with 31 percent of the vote, and Mike Huckabee, who managed a surprising second-place finish.
But the biggest beneficiary, oddly enough, may be Rudy Giuliani, who skipped the straw poll entirely.
Sure, Mr. Giuliani, in bypassing Saturday’s festivities, all but admitted that he won’t be competing for the top spot when the actual Iowa caucuses are held over the winter. But it was always unrealistic to expect him to be a factor in Iowa, where caucus participation is generally limited to the most committed (read: abortion-and-gay-issues-obsessed) members of the G.O.P. base. Mr. Giuliani’s strength lies in bigger and later primary states.
Nonetheless, Saturday was helpful to him because the emergence of the likable and rhetorically gifted Mr. Huckabee represents a clear threat to Mr. Romney’s front-running status in Iowa—and anything that undermines Mr. Romney in the early caucus and primary states, for the Giuliani campaign, is good.
As the G.O.P. race now stands, Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani each enjoy a tenuous share of the front-runner’s perch, with Fred Thompson a rung or so below them and John McCain still fading. But their road maps to the nomination are radically different. Mr. Romney, who lags far behind in national polls, is banking that early scores in Iowa and New Hampshire will spill over into South Carolina and the “national” primary on Feb. 5. The Giuliani strategy, on the other hand, calls for modest success in the early states followed by victories in the big, delegate-rich Feb. 5 contests, venues where he now holds considerable leads in polls.
Mr. Giuliani’s game plan works best, then, if the verdict from the early states is mixed, which would prevent Mr. Romney (who at this moment enjoys hefty leads in Iowa and New Hampshire) from wrapping himself in unstoppable inevitability. Mr. Giuliani could then conceivably use Feb. 5 to claim such momentum for himself, with winnable primaries scheduled in major states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, each home to an electorate vastly more amenable to him than Iowa’s. (Florida, which holds its stand-alone primary on January 29, is also part of this strategy.)
It’s a risky gamble, since neither party has nominated a candidate who failed to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since the Democrats tapped George McGovern in 1972. (This does not count Bill Clinton, who won the Democratic nomination in 1992, a year in which the Iowa caucuses, for all practical purposes, didn’t take place.)
And without Saturday’s surprise in Ames, we might now be penciling in Mr. Romney as the winner in Iowa and New Hampshire. Think about it this way: This year’s straw poll, shunned by most of the big names, was about defining the second tier of candidates. The second-place finisher would be rewarded with dark horse status, while those who fared disappointingly risked marginalization—by the media and by moneymen and -women. And among the eight non-Romney Republicans who contested the straw poll, only Mr. Huckabee, a warm and personable ordained minister with a compelling biography and charming wit, has the ingredients that could—with more money and media exposure—ultimately challenge Mr. Romney for the top spot in the caucuses. Indeed, even before Saturday, a poll of likely caucus-goers showed Mr. Huckabee inching up to 8 percent, a testament to his one-on-one campaign skills, given that his financially strapped campaign hasn’t been able to purchase exposure.
But Mr. Huckabee wasn’t supposed to finish anywhere near second place in Ames. That spot, supposedly, was reserved for Senator Sam Brownback, who says the right words to Christian conservatives but who lacks Mr. Huckabee’s infectious manner and appeal to other elements within the party.
Had Mr. Brownback taken care of business, Mr. Huckabee likely would be on his way out of the race now—and the Romney campaign would be uncorking champagne bottles, rightly confident that Mr. Brownback would pose no serious caucus-day threat. And for Mr. Romney, Iowa is actually the harder of the first two states, given his next-door-neighbor status in New Hampshire, where he’s already opened a double-digit lead on his rivals. Almost certainly, an Iowa caucus win for Mr. Romney would lead directly to a triumph in New Hampshire—the one-two punch that his nomination strategy relies on and that Mr. Giuliani, for his own survival, must prevent.
But now, even though it won’t register in polls for some time, Mr. Romney has a fight on his hands in Iowa. Mr. Huckabee is a gifted politician who wins the instinctive trust of religious conservatives—positioning him perfectly to exploit Mr. Romney’s politically opportunistic self-reinventions on social issues.
And that should make Mr. Giuliani smile.