Suddenly, Huckabee Is in Romney's Rearview Mirror

Ex-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee leaves the stage after speaking at the Iowa Republican Party's Reagan Dinner in Des Moines in October. Huckabee has surged in Iowa this month.
Ex-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee leaves the stage after speaking at the Iowa Republican Party's Reagan Dinner in Des Moines in October. Huckabee has surged in Iowa this month. (Photos By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 25, 2007

DES MOINES, Nov. 24 -- For six months, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has owned Iowa.

He spent millions on TV and unleashed his extended family to blanket the state. He survived a farm-town blitz by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and the late entrance of former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) into the Republican race. Romney's money and organization bought him a convincing victory at the Ames presidential straw poll and a seemingly unshakable lead in the Iowa survey.

But his vision of quick, one-two victories here and in New Hampshire is crumbling, suddenly threatened by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a candidate who spent most of 2007 out of the spotlight and has struggled to raise money. Polls now show the pair in a virtual tie in Iowa, a development that not only threatens Romney's carefully laid plans but could reshape the entire GOP nominating contest.

Huckabee has received glowing reviews for his debate performances, showing off his folksy charm and playing to conservatives. But despite his second-place showing in the straw poll this summer, his campaign did not take off until this month, when polls began to show him overtaking everyone but Romney in Iowa. Money started flowing in -- $1 million online in less than one week, according to his campaign -- and he started to catch the attention of both pundits and rivals.

"There is nothing like winning," said Bob Vander Plaats, Huckabee's Iowa chairman. "If we come in second, that's a story. If we beat Romney, the whole universe just changed."

Huckabee's surge in Iowa has further scrambled a race that already defied easy prediction. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has consistently led national polls testing the Republican field, drawing on his name recognition and his performance after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the GOP contest remains competitive in New Hampshire, wide open in South Carolina, and now Iowa is up for grabs.

Even Huckabee appears to have been caught unprepared by the sudden turn of events. His Iowa state director is in Costa Rica hunting snakes over the Thanksgiving weekend and will not return to the state until tomorrow. On Friday afternoon, Huckabee's Iowa headquarters at the corner of Locust and 6th in downtown Des Moines was locked and deserted.

"How much can you do on America's number one shopping day?" Vander Plaats explained, saying the staff will gear up the office again on Monday. "Other than the morning of Christmas, it's their last breath of oxygen."

With just a few weeks remaining before the Iowa caucuses, Huckabee is frantically trying to organize his supporters in the Hawkeye State. They include a network of evangelical Christians who like Huckabee's antiabortion, anti-same-sex marriage rhetoric, home-school activists who appreciate the work he did for their cause in Arkansas, gun-rights groups, and advocates of replacing the income tax with a national sales tax, an idea that Huckabee has championed.

His political enemies -- no shortage of whom have popped up in recent days -- have gone on the offensive, accusing Huckabee of numerous tax increases, ethics violations and an ill-advised pardon. The Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group in Washington, has all but turned itself into an anti-Huckabee machine. The Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly charges that Huckabee "destroyed the conservative movement in Arkansas."

"He's one of them. He's an evangelical," a senior strategist for a rival campaign said in explaining Huckabee's strength among conservatives in Iowa. "What they don't understand yet is that he is a fiscal liberal. They haven't figured that out."

Huckabee supporters say the attacks are boosting his appeal by elevating him to the status of top-tier contender and a man who must be taken seriously. "The Iowa people will now say he must be credible; otherwise, they wouldn't be shooting at him," Vander Plaats said.

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