By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 4, 2008
DES MOINES, Jan. 3 -- Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee rode a wave of evangelical fervor to victory over Mitt Romney in Iowa's Republican caucuses Thursday, an outcome that hardly seemed possible two months ago.
"Tonight what we have seen is a new day in American politics," Huckabee told supporters at the Embassy Suites here. "And tonight it starts here in Iowa, but it doesn't end here. It goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
After spending nine months near the bottom of the pack, Huckabee surged to become the front-runner in Iowa in December and never relinquished the position, despite a barrage of negative ads from Romney's methodically built and well-financed operation.
But Huckabee now heads to New Hampshire, where voting takes place Tuesday, with little support in the polls and only a ragtag organization to mount a second come-from-behind victory. To succeed, he will have to broaden his message, which has largely been designed to appeal to the Christian conservatives who helped him win Thursday night. New Hampshire voters tend to be less focused on social issues and more concerned with lowering taxes and reducing the size of government.
Thursday's turnout shattered the previous record of about 87,000 voters, with more than 125,000 projected to have caucused. Sixty percent of Republican caucusgoers described themselves as evangelicals, according to entrance polls. Those voters went for Huckabee over Romney by more than 2 to 1.
With 93 percent of precincts reporting, Huckabee had won 34 percent of the delegates awarded, Romney held 25 percent, and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) were tied for third, with about 13 percent each.
For Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, the defeat is a devastating blow to his "kindling strategy," conceived in Boston years ago, to spark a fire in the early-voting states by outspending and out-organizing his rivals. He spent millions in Iowa alone, in part by tapping his personal fortune, in the hope of building an insurmountable lead.
Standing with his wife and family, Romney, a former head of the Olympic Games, accepted the "silver" and congratulated his rival for earning the "gold." But he vowed to win first place in the "final games" and to "keep it up state after state after state."
He told a large and enthusiastic crowd that he had competed against more well-known names, such as McCain, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Thompson, a former actor, who qualified for a critical debate in New Hampshire tomorrow. "Somehow, tonight, we beat all of them," Romney said.
Romney is going all out in New Hampshire, where he headed Thursday night and where he has already begun to focus his fire not at Huckabee but at McCain, who sits atop polls there with Romney.
Aides to Romney have been forced to wage a two-front war for more than a month. In Iowa, they engaged in a losing battle to overcome Huckabee's Southern charm and support among evangelical Christians. In New Hampshire, they face McCain, whose connection to the Granite State runs deep and long, dating to his surprise victory over George W. Bush in 2000.
McCain's campaign collapsed last summer amid his steadfast support for the Iraq war and conservative anger over his support for an immigration overhaul. But he has reinvented his campaign, becoming once again the maverick underdog who succeeded so well eight years ago.
Speaking in New Hampshire, McCain offered an assessment of the Iowa campaign and an implicit warning to Romney, who has been running negative ads against him for weeks. "The lesson of this election in Iowa is that, one, you can't buy an election in Iowa, and, two, negative ads don't work," McCain said on CNN. "They don't work there, and they don't work here in New Hampshire."
Huckabee promised to compete in New Hampshire, but his weak standing there might force him to turn his attention to South Carolina's primary on Jan. 19, where a strong religious community could help him repeat his Iowa success. In dozens of interviews in New Hampshire this week, few voters indicated support for Huckabee.
His aides are wary of New Hampshire. "It's all no tax, no government there," said Bob Wickers, a top strategist. "It's not ideal." But they believe that the message of economic anxiety that he preaches will help in Michigan's primary on Jan. 15 and in states in the South, which have high poverty rates in addition to strong groups of social conservatives.
Rather than a battle over evangelical voters, the New Hampshire contest is likely to become a fight between Romney and McCain over economic conservatives and a race to win the many independents in the state.
In Iowa, social conservatives rallied around Huckabee after not finding another Republican candidate to champion their positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, guns and immigration. Romney and McCain had sought their support, but Romney was seen as coming too late to their thinking, and McCain was suspect because of his maverick streak. Giuliani, who did not compete in Iowa, was anathema because of his pro-choice position on abortion.
Other parts of the Republican establishment will not be cheering a Huckabee victory. He is viewed with suspicion by economic conservatives, who bristle at his anti-business message of economic populism and dislike his record of raising taxes in Arkansas. And his lack of foreign policy experience has been a concern for supporters of President Bush's national security policies.
But Huckabee, like the Democratic winner, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), casts himself as a fresh voice for change in Washington.
"If we win this vote, we will make political history like it's never been made in Iowa or America," Huckabee told a crowd of almost 2,000 people at one of his final rallies in Des Moines on Tuesday night.
Wickers said the victories of Obama and Huckabee are important because they communicate to voters that it is "okay" to vote for the candidates they find appealing, as opposed to those with more traditional experience, referring to Huckabee's career as a Baptist minister and Obama's relative lack of experience. Huckabee aides have long compared their campaign to Obama's, believing that both candidates offer uplifting, positive messages.
Huckabee's aides pointed to a series of ads, particularly one called "Believe" that dubbed him a "Christian leader," as not only promoting Huckabee but also making the case that Romney is not a politician of conviction. They noted entrance poll results showing that 33 percent of voters picked "candor" as a top factor in their vote, compared with 14 percent who chose experience and 8 percent who picked "best chance" of winning.
"You can't underestimate the importance of the 'Believe' ad," Wickers said.
Both campaigns credited a wave of turnout, especially in the state's northwestern areas, where evangelical Christians dominate. But Huckabee aides said their candidate turned out his supporters across the state.
For much of the campaign, it seemed as though Huckabee was going nowhere. After raising $1.5 million in the first six months of last year, he was lagging well behind Romney and other candidates.
Aides had long thought that his strong debate performances could help him win and get national media attention, but even that part of the strategy was not working well. "We knew he would do well in the debates if they ever called on him," Wickers said.
So, instead, the Huckabee campaign invested heavily in the straw poll held in Ames, Iowa, in August. Sarah Huckabee, the campaign's field director and the candidate's daughter, spent five weeks organizing support there. Huckabee's second-place showing, helped by support from Christian conservatives, helped launch his surge.
After Romney's aides began seeing evidence that Huckabee was succeeding in winning support in the Christian community, Romney started assailing Huckabee on his record as Arkansas governor, including his support of a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get breaks on college tuition and his record-breaking number of pardons, including the release of 11 convicted murderers.
The attacks led to the most bizarre moment of the campaign: Huckabee announcing this week that he would not run a negative ad that he had prepared against Romney, then playing it for reporters and television cameras, virtually ensuring it would be seen across Iowa.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.