Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, of late, has been the subject of endless punditry among Republican insiders. Some insist he is the new dark horse who can grab the nomination while others contend that he’s an irrelevant creation of a bored press corps.
In truth, he is neither.
Despite the rave reviews for his debate performances and his crushing win over Mitt Romney in the straw poll of religious conservatives who actually attended the Family Research Council (FRC) Voter Values Summit, Mr. Huckabee is limited.
He has raised a fifth of what Ron Paul has collected. He lacks appeal in urban states, holds views which are antithetical to fiscal conservatives and lacks any foreign policy experience. His odds of actually capturing the nomination are roughly equivalent to the chance that Rudy Giuliani would get through a debate without using the phrase “when I was mayor of New York City.”
Yet it would be a mistake to ignore Mr. Huckabee. Even without winning, he’s likely to factor heavily in the primary, posing a threat in particular to the candidacies of Mr. Romney and Fred Thompson.
Polling in Iowa shows Mr. Huckabee’s stock rising after he placed a respectable second in the Ames Straw Poll. After his surprising showing at the FRC event, some state polling in Texas and in Georgia had him tied or ahead of Mr. Romney, while a recent Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll showed him leading Mr. Romney nationally among religious conservatives.
His plain-spoken appeal and social conservative credentials make him a viable alternative to Mr. Romney in Iowa and to Mr. Thompson in South Carolina. Neither state requires huge media buys and both have high concentrations of evangelical conservatives–the type of voter that embraced him at the FRC. Moreover, as the self-proclaimed David to these two Goliaths, Mr. Huckabee need not actually get more votes than his better known opponents to declare a moral victory.
By contrast, after inflating his lead in Iowa through incessant visits and enormous expenditures on paid ads, Mr. Romney has raised expectations which a close second place by Huckabee could easily undermine. Similarly, he could harm the Thompson bid simply by diminishing Mr. Thompson’s margin of victory in South Carolina.
But beyond all that, Mr. Huckabee is a walking, talking advertisement for his opponents’ flaws.
Mr. Romney’s elastic views and slick presentation seems that much worse to social conservatives next to Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist preacher whose fire-and-brimstone invocation of religious values makes the Romney message seem plastic and contrived.
And Mr. Thompson, he of the forgettable public appearances, lethargic schedule and distain for retail politics, suffers badly when compared to Mr. Huckabee’s considerable charm and energy. It often seems that Mr. Huckabee is the actor and Mr. Thompson the small-state governor.
Mr. Huckabee may not have the profile or resources to win the nomination, but he could do serious damage to two contenders who have yet to get their political acts together. In that regard, he may well live up to his hype.