Iowa Caucus Approaching

Finally — after months (years?) of a seemingly endless presidential campaign we are now a few weeks away from the Iowa Caucus. It may prove to be one of the most exciting in recent memory.

For nearly a year conventional wisdom was that Mitt Romney had Iowa in the bag. Relatively unknown outside of Massachusetts before his run, he had decided to concentrate on the early states where he could build momentum for the remainder of the race. He reportedly has spent over $7Million in Iowa. He won the Ames straw poll and as of last week had held 176 events in the state. His emphasis on family values and protecting marriage seemed to appeal to Iowa voters.

Then along came Mike Huckabee who in the latest Des Moines Register poll now leads Romney by 5 pts, having spent only hundreds of thousands, not millions, of dollars. An Iowa State University (ISU) poll released Monday has Romney with a narrow lead but within the margin of error. ISU professor Steffen Schmidt says of Huckabee: “He fits the conservative profile. He is charming and the most likable candidate of all the Republicans. He plays rock guitar. He does not scare people!” The local media in Iowa swoons over the Huckabee “David” in his face off against the Romney “Goliath.” Despite a barrage of press releases by Club for Growth attacking Huckabee’s fiscal record as Arkansas Governor his momentum has only increased.

What happened? Larry J. Sabato explains: “Over 40% — and perhaps as much as 50% — of the Iowa GOP caucus vote consists of white evangelical Christians. They’ve been looking for someone who fits their profile, and Huckabee comes closer than Romney and certainly Giuliani. Huckabee realized this from the beginning, to his credit.” Meanwhile Romney’s problems, Schmidt contends, include the “flip flop problem” and a sense that he is “plastic” — perhaps too polished and stiff.

Huckabee’s television ads flash his credentials as “Christian Leader” (he is Baptist minister). Huckabee’s appeal with Christian conservatives and the collapse of Romney’s lead may well be the reason for Romney’s decision to give the much awaited speech on Thursday on religion and his Mormonism.

However, Huckabee’s appeal is also personal. His witty debate performances have shown him to be the type of candidate who does well in Iowa — conservative but not antagonistic. Joe Carter, an evangelical blogger now running Huckabee’s internet communications efforts, says he is doing well “because he connects with the American people. . . Governor Huckabee treats the campaign as a job interview. He focuses on connecting with voters, constantly showing them why they can trust him to bring America together.” The biggest challenges for Huckabee may now be managing expectations. (Carter says: “We’re cautiously optimistic. While we are thrilled to be doing so well after the latest debate we recognize that there is still a lot or work to do.”)

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden claims that Huckabee has not had to face the glare of attention like the top tier candidates. He says: “I believe he has avoided scrutiny so far.  Everyone else has gotten a full examination for 11 months, and Huckabee has only come into focus the last 2 weeks. His tax and spend record, as well as his record on immigration, are entirely at odds with Republican voters.”

Romney is fighting back, releasing his first “comparative” direct mailings which take Huckabee to task for his spending record and support for college scholarships for children of illegal aliens. Although voters say they dislike negative advertising, especially in Iowa where they like their politicians to be polite and friendly, Sabato points out “People can dislike something but still absorb information from it that affects their voting choice.” Not surprisingly, Huckabee is portraying this as a sign of desperation. Carter remarks: “Romney recognizes that he can’t match Governor Huckabee when it comes to connecting with people. So he knows that the only thing he can do is use his fabulous wealth to run negative, inaccurate, and degrading ads.”

Romney is also trying gamely to lower expectations for himself. Madden contends: “Our goal, and our plan from the beginning, was to be competitive in these early primary states where we had a good opportunity to get known and really reach voters through the grassroots.  We’ve gone from being unknown in Iowa to being in a competitive position there.  I’d expect that finishing towards the top in Iowa will help us gather momentum as we move towards New Hampshire, where we have also spent a lot of time and built a great organization.”  

Huckabee and the media are likely to dispute the contention that Romney, after spending millions to build a double digit lead and touting his early state approach as the only proven strategy for seizing the nomination, need only finish “towards the top” to avoid being tagged as the victim of an upset. Huckabee’s team hopes that either a win or close second will capture the headlines and the momentum — the very things Romney had hoped to extract from his enormous investment in Iowa.

As for the rest of the pack, Thompson has begun airing TV ads but he remains in the poll average in fourth place. In the latest Des Moines Register poll he slid from 18% in October to 9%( matching his total in the ISU poll).Pollster and analyst Charlie Cook candidly says of Thompson’s effort: “no signs of life.” Given his low standing in New Hampshire, finishing out of the money in Iowa may seriously dampen his prospects.

Iowa has never been in Giuliani’s must win category, not having participated in the Ames Straw poll and set his focus on Florida and the February 5 states. Nevertheless Giuliani advisors have hoped to do “well” — which likely means grabbing one of the proverbial “three tickets” out of the state. Giuliani has yet to air any TV ads (and the campaign declines to confirm when and if they will) but has quietly added paid staff (now up to 12) and stepped up the pace of radio spots and direct mailings which emphasize favored issues, terrorism and fiscal discipline. He will spend more time in Iowa before January 3 trying to maintain his current third place standing.

John McCain, while making progress in national and New Hampshire polls, has languished in Iowa, where he runs fifth in most polls. He has yet to run TV or radio ads but has the benefit of a robust ground organization and intends to make multiple visits before January 3.  His advisors see the December 12 Des Moines Register debate as his best opportunity to make his pitch .Pundits speculate whether a poor showing there will undermine his chances in New Hampshire while he is banking that independent minded New Hampshire voters won’t much care how Iowans vote.

Despite the rising enthusiasm for Huckabee, questions remain whether he has the organizational heft to turn out supporters on January 3. Some skeptics recall Howard Dean’s Iowa effort in 2004 which garnered headlines for throngs of enthusiastic supporters but who ultimately could not deliver them on caucus night.

Time is limited for each candidate to make his case. The January 3 date puts a premium on getting voters’ attention before Christmas and on the crucial days of January 2 and 3 when Sabato contends “remaining undecideds will make a choice, and a few weak supporters will switch horses.” In one regard, Huckabee may benefit from this calendar. Cook points out that the holiday timing may make negative advertising by Romney more problematic. After all, no one likes to see nasty ads at Christmas time.

Now, despite all the hoopla over the Iowa contest, the impact of Iowa may be overstated. Sabato reminds us that: “Pat Robertson defeated George H.W. Bush in Iowa in 1988, and Pat was never heard from electorally again in that year. So Abraham may have begat Isaac, but Iowa does not necessarily beget New Hampshire or any place else.”

Huckabee is hoping differently. He is banking that a win or near win in Iowa will encourage social conservatives to rally to his cause and become the alternative to Giuliani.  As for Romney, he must either regain his momentum, or make the case that his early state strategy didn’t really depend on a decisive Iowa win. Neither will be easy.