Understandably, the chatter this week has been about which candidates will be most hurt by Fred Thompson’s just-announced candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
But on the eve of his declaration on Sept. 6, there was more evidence that the biggest x-factor in the G.O.P. race is not from Tennessee. The eight non-Thompson candidates debated in New Hampshire—and this time there actually were verbal confrontations that justified the use of the term “debate”—and it provided still more signs that the man to watch may actually be Mike Huckabee.
This was a very good night for Mr. Huckabee, starting just a few minutes after 9:00, when Fox News, obviously irked that Mr. Thompson had spurned its debate in favor of Jay Leno’s couch, devoted the first several minutes of its broadcast to settling the score. Who, moderator Brit Hume asked the candidates, made the smart choice: Fred Thompson for choosing “The Tonight Show,” or all of you for choosing New Hampshire? Batting lead-off, Mr. Huckabee joked that he’d originally been offered Mr. Thompson’s guest spot on “The Tonight Show” but had turned it down because he’d rather be with the people of New Hampshire. Then he compared Mr. Thompson to “No Show” George Jones—nicknamed, he said, for frequently standing up concert audiences. The other candidates made similar points, though not as colorfully as Mr. Huckabee did. This Fred-bashing is particularly helpful to Mr. Huckabee’s political game plan: Any Huckabee nomination scenario demands a victory in South Carolina, the same early primary state where Mr. Thompson’s son-of-the-south credentials will most resonate.
Then there was the rest of the debate. Time and again, Mr. Huckabee asserted himself as the strongest orator of the bunch, combining the superficial—but ever vital—charm of Mitt Romney with a remarkable ability, honed during his years in the pulpit, to address bloodless policy topics in a language that is accessible and appealing to the common man.
Take the topic of Iraq, which shouldn’t be Mr. Huckabee’s strong suit, considering that his political experience doesn’t extend past the Arkansas State House. And the discussion of the troop surge provided his finest moment of the night.
Notably, he was preceded in his answer by Sam Brownback, the Kansas conservative who was once thought to be the potential dark horse that Mr. Huckabee has become. Mr. Brownback chewed through his time with a dispassionate assessment of the various factions in Iraq and the challenges in forging a political alliance between them, making liberal mention of the Kurds, the Shiites, and even the Turks. If he were guest lecturing at Johns Hopkins in D.C., his rhetoric would have been more than serviceable. But in a political debate, it did nothing for him.
But Mr. Huckabee, showing his preacher’s sensibility, was keenly aware of his audience. He offered a simple analogy to the You-break-it-you-bought-it admonitions of his mother when he was a kid.
“Well, what we did in Iraq—we essentially broke it,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to do the best we can to fix it before we walk away.”
Granted, his analogy is hardly new: Colin Powell famously gave the same advice. But it’s an example of how Mr. Huckabee’s instincts are geared toward connecting with his audience. On an abortion question, he asserted his pro-life credentials by noting that super-human effort that was put into rescuing the doomed Utah miners a few weeks ago – and suggesting an unborn child deserves the same level of concern. On immigration—even as he called for compassion for illegal immigrants, a perilous sentiment for a Republican candidate to express this year—he managed to win the crowd’s approval by noting that FedEx can track a package to within an inch of its location anywhere in the country – and yet the government can’t seem to keep track of human beings. He scored similar points on the seemingly mind-numbing topic of the “Fair Tax,” a proposed national sales tax he’s endorsed.
Mr. Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo (and, when they were in the race, Jim Gilmore and Tommy Thompson) never address questions this way—and so they remain stuck in asterisk-land. Front-runners can get away with boring, clock-killing answers, but only because they are being judged by a different standard. Only Mr. Huckabee understands the fundamental challenge of running as a second tier candidate—the need to stand out.
And he showed political savvy on Wednesday night as well. Before it was Mr. Huckabee’s turn to answer the Iraq question, John McCain and Mr. Romney had a brief dust-up on the same topic. Mr. Romney, plainly in over his head, tried to run out the clock, sounding a bit like Miss Teen South Carolina as he stated—repeatedly—that “the surge seems to be working” but that he wouldn’t know for sure until General David Petraeus’ report is issued next week. Mr. McCain, in his strongest moment of the night, replied that: “Governor, the surge is working. The surge is working, sir. No—not apparently. It’s working.”
Mr. Huckabee clearly sniffed opportunity: Mr. Romney is the early front-runner in Iowa, where Mr. Huckabee must deliver a break-out performance on caucus night. So in his own Iraq answer, he saluted Mr. McCain, who just moments earlier had called Mr. Romney out on his shaky foreign policy credentials. “If there’s anybody on this stage who understands the word sacrifice,” Mr. Huckabee said, “it’s Senator McCain, because he’s given this nation a sacrifice that none of us even understand.”
There was also Mr. Huckabee’s back-and-forth with Ron Paul, the preferred punching bag for any Republican looking to win applause from the crowd. Rudy Giuliani used the Texas congressman to magnificent effect in a South Carolina debate months ago, and Mitt Romney tried to copy him in Iowa a few weeks back. Wednesday night, Mr. Huckabee challenged Mr. Paul’s assertion that the American people should not feel obligated to keep their armed forces in Iraq, since the decision to invade was made only by a handful of neoconservatives.
Saying that the United States makes mistakes “as a single nation,” he reiterated his belief that the country has a moral obligation to leave Iraq with some semblance of stability. Mr. Paul used his reply to note that the war is destroying the G.O.P.’s electoral chances. Mr. Huckabee, to the audience’s delight, declared that, “Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor. And that is more important to the Republican Party.”
It’s no revelation that Mr. Huckabee is a talented public performer. But in Wednesday’s debate, his screen time seemed to rival that of the major candidates for the first time. It’s a sign that he’s leaving the also-rans in the dust—and may end up in the top tier before this is over.