What one has the other lacks.
After a prolonged inspection of the candidates in the race and a period of waiting to see who else might run, many Hawkeye State Republicans seem to have narrowed the contest to a choice between two former governors.
All the mojo seems to be with Huckabee – a Newsweek poll released Friday shows him ahead of Romney by a staggering 39 percent to 17 percent margin.
But Iowa veterans warn that while Huckabee is all the rage, it’s almost impossible to win in Iowa without an organization – and Huckabee’s is skeletal. “A poll is a poll in Iowa,” observes Ed Failor Jr., a longtime Iowa Republican and anti-tax leader based in Muscatine who is currently undecided. “But it’s different than turning out voters on caucus night.”
Supporters of Huckabee say his appeal is deep and fundamental. The Southern Baptist minister hits conservative Iowans in the heart, and his views, as well as his modest background, are much like theirs.
“I think at this stage of the game, I can be a little more pure to my heart,” says Mark Lundberg, chairman of the Sioux County GOP. “At some point, I may have to become pragmatic, but Huckabee is a little closer to where I am as a Christian conservative.”
And it’s not just the Arkansan’s consistency on cultural issues such as abortion that is appealing, Lundberg said. It’s also his Christian spirit.
“I hate to use the words ‘compassionate conservative,’” Lundberg says with a chuckle, but “he has a lot of sympathy for people in need.”
Forty percent of those likely to show up on Jan. 3 to participate in the Iowa caucuses are self-identified evangelicals. Polls show Huckabee has established a solid lead among this constituency and that his backers are more committed than those of Romney.
The apparent move by Iowa’s evangelical base came after the community took a look at Fred Thompson and decided to take a pass, Republicans here say. If the bumper sticker for Democratic activists in Iowa in 2004 was “Dated Dean, Married Kerry,” it may be “Flirted with Fred, Fell for Huck” among social conservatives this time.
Beyond Huckabee and Romney, “all the others seem to be in the back of the pack,” observes Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance.
And even Scheffler, who has been skeptical of Huckabee’s viability, marvels at what he calls “an amazing political success story.”
His organic surge is “a testimony to the power of the evangelicals and pro-life Catholics in the Republican party,” Scheffler says.
But beyond Thompson’s failure to launch, Huckabee’s rise also speaks to the hunger in the party for a Romney alternative.
“People were looking for a conservative they felt comfortable with,” Lundberg adds.
Kevin Alons, chair of the Woodbury County GOP, notes that “Romney has been saying all the right things, socially and fiscally.”
“But is he truly authentic and how reliable will he be on the issues?” Alons asks.
Then there is Romney’s Mormon faith. Romney insisted at a press conference here Friday that the intent of his widely covered speech Thursday was not to reassure social conservatives. But less than a month away from the caucuses, it’s clear some do need reassuring.
Alons said he read the coverage of Romney’s address in Texas and came away impressed – but added that he still has some worries about the issue, though he wouldn’t be specific.
In short, Romney’s challenges here are exactly Huckabee’s stregths: A non-traditional church member versus a Baptist preacher; a newcomer to the social conservative cause versus a consistent champion and a candidate who lacks a deft personal touch with one who can connect like few others in politics today.
“Big mo is hard to stop once it gets started,” says the Iowa Republican Party’s executive director, Chuck Laudner. “And it seems to be growing for Huckabee by the day.”
It’s enough to delight Huckabee’s camp, but also cause to make supporters worry that expectations are rising too high too soon.
“Folks need to calm down here,” says Eric Woolson, Huckabee’s Iowa director.
“We’ve said from day one, back there in January, the objective is to finish in the top three. It’s always been to finish in the top three and that’s still the objective today.”
The caucuses are still “an organizational exercise when you get right down to it,” Woolson adds, dropping the bar another notch. “And Romney has been here for a long time with a lot of people and a lot of money.”
Spin aside, every Iowa Republican contacted for this story cites Huckabee’s utter lack of a campaign structure as his most formidable obstacle to win.
“There’s no such thing as any Huckabee ground game that I see at all,” observes Failor.
Televangelist Pat Robertson maximized the Christian community in Iowa to finish a surprise second in 1988, Failor notes, but he did so with a 99-county organization that had been built over many months.
“The church community is excitable, energizable and movable, but if you don’t have apparatus to move those people on caucus night it doesn’t matter,” Failor says. “It’s all about organization – always has been and always will be.’
And on this count, Romney has a strong advantage. In addition to his grass-roots supporters, he’s got an experienced and disciplined staff and dozens of paid activists in the field termed “super volunteers.”
Additionally, Romney will be aided by two other forces: third-party groups such as the Club for Growth and Fred Thompson.
The anti-tax group goes up on TV Monday with an ad here hammering Huckabee for raising some taxes as governor. And Thompson will focus much of his campaign effort here in the remaining days of December and won’t be shy about drawing contrasts with Huckabee as they battle for a similar pool of undecided voters.
The former Tennessee senator just sent a mail piece out to Iowa Republicans this week comparing Huckabee to Bill Clinton and hitting him on his fiscal record.
At the same time, Huckabee is enjoying support from a network of local pastors and a newly formed third party group called “Trust Huckabee” is promising to help him organize precincts and already going after his rivals in automated phone calls. (Huckabee has denounced the organization.)
Thompson and Romney will both target Huckabee on immigration, a red-hot issue among Republicans here and one that even those friendly to Huckabee express concern about. But there is, for now at least, a hesitance to air negative ads.
Both camps fear the backlash that may come from Iowans if they are the first to go negative, especially given the support Huckabee has won based on his likability. To do a contrast ad could drive up their own negatives and not do much damage to a candidate who has risen based on persona not policy.
“The attacks on him, I don’t care how factual they may be, if you’ve decided you’re going to support him, it will bounce off,” Laudner predicts.
So for now it’s a toss-up between Huckabee and Romney, Scheffler says. The underfunded Arkansan has improved his infrastructure in recent days and is bringing on additional staff to help the final push.
But the question looming over the ace may be, in the word of Scheffler, “does [Huckabee] have the manpower to deliver those bodies?”
The opportunity is there. Now it’s a matter of whether Huckabee can put together in a matter of days what Romney has built over a matter of years.