Des Moines, Iowa — As the national media tried to analyze how Mike Huckabee managed to run away with the Iowa caucuses last night, there was another story that Republicans in general are hopeful about — the record turnout at the first-in-the-nation excercise in nominating a Presidential candidate.
Although final figures are not yet available, signs are strong that more than 108,000 Iowa Republicans braved the cold last night and trekked to churches, schools, and private homes to select delegates to county conventions and state a presidential preference.
“That’s a phenomenon!” exclaimed Pete Jeffries, Precinct Committeeman in Dallas County and chairman of the caucus meeting I attended last night at the Heartland Presbyterian Church in Clive, Iowa. “About 65,000 participated in the Iowa caucuses in 2000, so this represents almost a 50% increase in turnout.”
Jeffries, once press secretary to former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill) and campaign manager for Jim Nussle’s unsuccessful bid for governor in 2006, and wife Chris arrived before the sign-ups for the meeting and set up 120 chairs in the church’s sanctuary. Within fifteen minutes after the sign-ups began at 6:00 PM, the sanctuary was filled and the Jeffries’ realized that the line was stretching out into the cold evening and there was standing room only in the church. By the time the secret ballot began, 365 came to participate at Heartland –“about a 30% turnout,” according to Jeffries.
The group at Heartland was an eclectic one. Retired businessman Paul Bissinger has been active in local politics and was a strong supporter of Mitt Romney (who won the Heartland caucus rather handily, 141 votes to 91 for Huckabee — the obverse of the statewide returns). But there were also newcomers — Eric Drexler, who works for GE Capital, and attorney-wife Catherine Drexler told me they were attending their first caucus because they felt it “was our responsibility to participate in this election.” Catherine is for John McCain and Eric for Fred Thompson (who placed respectively third with 58 votes and fourth with 39 votes). Another first-time caucus-goer was Eileen Wixted, onetime NBC-TV reporter and now owner of her own strategic communications company. Recalling her days as a newscaster in Bay City, Michigan, Wixted told me “I remember Mitt Romney’s father George when he was governor of Michigan and he did an outstanding job. And I’m also for Mitt because I own my own business and I like the idea of a businessman as president.”
After the roll call of the sign-ups was completed and participants walked to the altar of the sanctuary to cast their secret ballots, the meeting’s officers adjourned behind closed door with the box of ballots. Finally, Chairman Jeffries announced the results — a solid win for Romney, all right, but the enthusiasm of supporters was dampened as word spread that Huckabee was winning big over their man statewide.
And then, as the real business of the meeting (to elect delegates to the county convention in March) began, the big crowd dwindled and went home. A handful of the faithful remained to do the party business. Dallas County and Iowa had had their evening. Now, for the party, it was on to business as usual.
Huckabee’s Next Step
“So will it be Vice President Norris?” my colleague, Jamie Coomarasamy of BBC Radio, asked Chuck Norris moments after the triumph of the action star’s presidential favorite, Mike Huckabee, last night.
“No, I’m not tough enough for politics,” Norris told Coomarasamy without flinching. While the two-fisted star of “Walker Texas Ranger” was probably joshing, he had been dead serious in introducing Huckabee to a cheering crowd at the Embassy Suites Hotel here and hailing his victory the Iowa presidential caucuses. In a modern record turnout of more than 100,000 participants in the quadrennial event, former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee easily outpaced Mitt Romney by a margin of 34% to 25% — all the more impressive in that Romney outspent him by an estimated margin of 20-to-1.
But the big question everyone was asking at the Huckabee victory celebration was “what does Mike do now?” In an interview with CNN, Huckabee national campaign manager Ed Rollins signaled that the GOP’s “man from Hope” would make a serious effort in the New Hampshire primary January 8. Rollins noted that other insurgents — notably Pat Buchanan in 1996 — have appealed to the state’s independents voters and emerged triumphant.
But others in the Huckabee inner circle were not so certain. When I asked former Arkansas Sen. and longtime Huckabee friend Tim Hutchinson if his man was “going to New Hampshire,” he replied: “Yes — but I don’t know how long he’ll stay there.” (Polls almost always show Huckabee a distant third among likely voters in New Hampshire, running far behind John McCain and Romney.)
Hutchinson also conceded that “Mike doesn’t have anything in Michigan” — the next major primary a week after New Hampshire — despite polls showing him tied with native son Romney among likely voters. Hutchinson strongly indicated Huckabee would next come on strong and have a chance of winning in South Carolina, which holds its primary January 19.
But wherever he focuses his energy and goes, one thing is clear about Mike Huckabee: he is viewed today a lot differently and a lot more seriously by opponents and pundits than he was yesterday.