While Mike Huckabee’s rise to the top of the Republican polls nationwide and in key states (Iowa, South Carolina, and Michigan) appears unstoppable, this, of course, is not the nature of politics. For example, in the 2004 presidential campaign, the rise and the fall of Howard Dean’s candidacy were equally pronounced and swift.
How was Huckabee able to rise in the polls so quickly? Huckabee was polling in the very low single digits through July 2007—along side the likes of Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. Tancredo and Hunter remain in the low single digits, while Huckabee frequently surpasses 20 percent in statewide and national polls.
Some speculate Huckabee’s surge is due to his luring Christian conservatives and evangelicals. This is the ‘how’ but not the ‘why.’ Tancredo and Hunter are both staunch conservatives, and Tancredo (along with Huckabee and Sam Brownback) was one of the three Republicans to raise their hand an early 2008 GOP debate indicating that they believe in creationism.
Huckabee was able to move past the lowest-tier in the polls not because his conservative credentials are any more noteworthy than several other lower-tier Republican candidates, but because of his powerful debate performances, and the positive press it garnered. Huckabee’s speaking style and cadence is unlike any other of the GOP hopefuls—coming across as natural, steady, sincere, and caring. Huckabee’s religious background no doubt has served him well on the campaign trail.
But what could derail the Huckabee train? Most pundits predicting his downfall are pointing to his not-conservative-enough record as Governor of Arkansas—his commutation of prison sentences, his support of giving higher education tuition breaks to the children of illegal aliens, and his tax and spend policies.
This record will certainly not help Huckabee, but it is not his policies that led him to the top of the field to begin with—it is his demeanor and character. It is not, therefore, the attack ads (and one was lanuched this week by Mitt Romney) that will do the most damage to Huckabee; these are expected to surface against any top-tier candidate. It is Huckabee’s response to these ads that could hurt him. If Huckabee starts to sound negative—and starts to sound like the other candidates—then his tenuous support will begin to crumble.
An example of what could get Huckabee in trouble is his quote in a New York Times magazine article in which he asks, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” (a not-so-disguised attack on Romney). Republicans, even the evangelical conservatives who have been flocking to his side in recent months, do not want Huckabee The Attack Dog or Huckabee The Intolerant. This is especially so in Iowa (where negative ads by Dick Gephardt during his 2004 presidential run led to a 4th place finish and ended his campaign). How Huckabee handles Romney’s attacks will go a long way in defining these next few weeks. Huckabee needs to respond, but he must respond with a positive message to keep his (very positive) image in tact.