Romney's Hollow Victory

Former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee performs with an Elvis impersonator at the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2007. CBS/Vaughn Ververs

This column was written by Noam Scheiber.

One of the main attractions at the annual Iowa State Fair, next to the 600-pound "butter cow" (a life-size heifer sculpted out of pure butter) and all manner of food impaled on a stick, is a man named Steve Deace. Deace is the host of "Deace in the Afternoon" — "the fastest three hours in all of local radio" — on a conservative Des Moines station called WHO. Last week, he and the other WHO announcers were broadcasting live from a glass-enclosed booth just inside the fairgrounds, putting them in close proximity to hordes of sun-burned Midwesterners, as well as a steady march of presidential wannabes.

When I met Deace the day before the GOP straw poll in nearby Ames, he was eager to unburden himself about one candidate in particular: Mitt Romney. Deace had been thrashing the former Massachusetts governor for several weeks — so much so that, a few days earlier, the Romney campaign had sent an emissary to try to calm him down. Judging from our conversation, the effort had been a total failure. Deace remained convinced that Romney was only pretending to be a conservative to win the nomination. He was especially peeved at Romney's recent jab at certain "holier-than-thou" critics who had questioned his pro-life credentials. "Now, if I'm a sellout, moderate, corporate Republican, I love language like that," Deace said. "Because I'm tired of hearing from the Steve Deaces of the world about the fact that I'm a sellout, corporate, moderate Republican."

Deace is a baby-faced man of about 35, with beady eyes and pasty white skin. He has the physique of a populist folk hero — he looks to be lugging around some 250 pounds — and the fans to back up that status. Several times during his Romney monologue, he was interrupted by starstruck well-wishers — a middle-aged couple introducing their daughter, a man who urged him to run for Congress. But now, as he moved in for the kill, even the groupies couldn't divert him. "You want to know who those holier-than-thou folks are, brother? Let me tell you who they are." As he spoke, he rocked back and forth so violently I felt myself getting seasick. "Those are the folks at Priests for Life and Operation Rescue and the Right to Life Committee. ... They fought the good fight for years while Mitt was sowing his conservative wild oats somewhere in the philosophical-ethereal realm."

The news accounts trumpeting Romney's win on Saturday didn't offer much hope to people like Deace. But just beneath the headlines lay an encouraging development: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a bona fide conservative, had finished a respectable second. His showing was all the more impressive given that the Huckabee campaign had few organizational resources, not only compared with the Romney juggernaut, but even alongside second-tier rivals like Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo. Strong organization, especially a get-out-the-vote effort, confers huge advantages in the Ames poll, to which voters must trek from all corners of the state. And yet, somehow, the Arkansan excelled nonetheless. Who knows? Maybe Deace and his fellow Romney-bashers will have a viable conservative to support after all.

There's no question that Romney earned the good press he received after Ames. In winning nearly 32 percent of the votes cast, Romney firmly established himself as the man to beat when Iowa holds the country's first nominating contest, currently slated for next January. Moreover, with both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain skipping the straw poll, Romney won himself something else nearly as important: goodwill from the local Republican officials who value loyalty in a would-be nominee.
  • David Miller