Happy Huckabee Dodges a Bullet

121307 kornacki web Happy Huckabee Dodges a BulletFortune smiled on Mike Huckabee today.

The former Arkansas Governor, suddenly the front-runner in Iowa, was supposed to come under intense fire from Mitt Romney at this afternoon’s Republican debate in Des Moines—the last head-to-head encounter between the candidates before the January 3 caucuses.

And the set-up seemed perfect for Mr. Romney, whose Mormonism has probably contributed to the stunning rise of Mr. Huckabee, a personable Baptist preacher who may be more culturally compatible with Iowa’s formidable bloc of Christian conservatives.

After deftly avoiding direct criticism of Mr. Romney’s church for months, Mr. Huckabee erred in the run up to the debate by telling a reporter that he didn’t know much about the Mormon faith—and then asking if “Mormons believe that Jesus and the Devil are brothers.” This seemingly set the stage for Mr. Romney, who delivered a well-crafted and highly publicized speech on religion last week, to confront Mr. Huckabee and to claim the moral high ground.

No doubt Mr. Romney had a fancy bit of stagecraft for such a moment all planned out, but the moment never presented itself. Nor was there an opening for Mr. Romney – or for any of the seven other candidates who might have been interested in doing so—to needle Mr. Huckabee about any of his other vulnerabilities, many of which have only come to light in the last few days.

Chalk it up to moderator Carolyn Washburn, the editor of the Des Moines Register, which co-sponsored the debate with Iowa Public Television. Ms. Washburn, unlike previous moderators (who have generally come from national networks), showed almost no interest in creating conflict and tension on the stage, sternly moving the proceedings along at a brisk pace and largely sticking to policy topics—deficit spending and tax equity featured prominently – that minimized the risk of strife between the candidates. The wonkish tone was reinforced by a restrained studio audience that announced its presence with lukewarm applause and mild laughter only a handful of times during the 90-minute broadcast.

In this environment, Mr. Romney and anyone else itching to take a swing at Mr. Huckabee surely realized, trying to use a 30-second answer to segue into a full-throttled attack on an opponent would have seemed jarringly discordant, an unbecoming violation of the Good Government spirit of the proceedings.

And so, for the most part, the candidates stuck with providing straight answers to Ms. Washburn’s questions, rarely speaking out of turn (except for Alan Keyes, who proved why it was unwise to invite him when he butted in as Ms. Washburn asked a question about education and said, “Your unfairness is becoming so apparent that the voters of Iowa must understand there is a reason for it”).

Mr. Huckabee, whose answers were often sandwiched between responses from second-tier candidates, was largely free to do what he is best at: Smile and recite pithy and folksy sound bites.

To a question about taxes, he reiterated his well-established support for a “fair tax,” arguing that any system of taxation should make sure that “the rich aren’t going to be made poor, but maybe the poor will be made rich.”

On health care, he pleaded for preventive medicine—“where we kill the snake, and not just treat the snakebites.” And when the loss of American jobs came up, he called for a more efficient, business-friendly government, saying, “I can’t part the Red Sea, but I do believe I can part the red tape.”

Ms. Washburn—unlike most of the moderators from the national networks would have done—made no effort to draw Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee into any kind of a dialogue. The closest Mr. Romney came to taking a shot at Mr. Huckabee came very late in the debate, when he good-naturedly suggested that he, and not Mr. Huckabee, had racked up the best education record of any Governor. The worst it got for Mr. Huckabee was in the closing seconds, when—as Ms. Washburn frantically interrupted him and partially drowned him out—the hapless Tom Tancredo suggested that Mr. Huckabee had been weak on immigration.

The subject of religion only came up briefly, when Ms. Washburn asked Mr. Huckabee how he would apply his faith to education and health care issues. He replied that he would make sure that students and sick people should all be treated equally, regardless of their economic background. At no point did Mr. Huckabee’s remark about Mormonism come up. Had, say, Tim Russert been moderating, you can rest assured the topic would have been broached early and often.

In many ways this has been a tough week for Mr. Huckabee, who has dealt with an embarrassing series of revelations about some past statements and intense questions about his ethical conduct as Governor and his role in the parole of a convicted rapist who went on to commit a murder. But not a word of any of this was breathed in Des Moines today.

Today’s debate was the first scheduled since Mr. Huckabee became a top-tier national player. And it was also the last one before Iowans caucus in three weeks. For Mr. Huckabee, this was no small blessing.