Less than a week remains before Republicans begin the long and arduous road to choosing a nominee. It begins in Iowa on Jan. 3, and continues at least through Feb. 5, the day that more than 20 states will select delegates to the convention in Minnesota’s Twin Cities next fall.
The possibility for idle speculation is endless. But there are a number of things we know for sure. First, the rise of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is more than a passing phenomenon. Polls show that his religious conservative voters are highly dedicated and motivated — 65 percent of his backers will “definitely” vote for him in Iowa, better than any other candidate. They could even prove to be better organized than his shoestring campaign would suggest, thanks to churches and pastors in that state and several others.
Second, although former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is struggling and slipping badly in national and key state polls, he is almost certain to win hundreds of delegates by the time Super Tuesday is over, no matter how poorly he does before that date. New York alone guarantees him 101 delegates (about 1,190 are required to win). Throw in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware (all of which have adopted winner-take-all), and he cannot do worse than 201 delegates — not even if he fails to take Florida’s 57.
These two certainties point to one possible outcome that should alarm Republicans of all ideological stripes — the religious and the irreligious, the right-to-lifers, the gun-rights advocates, the supply-siders, and the neoconservatives alike. A two-way knock-down-drag-out fight between Huckabee and Giuliani could completely destroy the coalition that Ronald Reagan built by combining social and economic conservatives with anti-Communists.
In one corner stands Mike Huckabee, whose campaign speaks freely of destroying the conservative movement. “It’s gone,” said Ed Rollins, his national campaign chairman. “The breakup of what was the Reagan coalition — social conservatives, defense conservatives, antitax conservatives — it doesn’t mean a whole lot to people anymore.” Naturally, Rollins points to Huckabee as the figure to form the new coalition.
Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has an appeal that doubles as his most unattractive quality. Far from merely appealing to Christians or engaging in normal expressions of faith, he is consciously making himself the “Jesus candidate” in order to win the Republican nomination. It is a strategy exploitative of faith, yet it has worked so far because so many Republicans are Christians and so many are also unhappy with the rest of the Republican field.
Lost in the so-called “floating cross” controversy over Huckabee’s Christmas ad was the ad’s overt use of Christianity to win an election. When Huckabee reminded Iowans in the ad that “what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ,” it obviously had a lot less to do with glorifying the Lord on Dec. 25 than it did with convincing a certain kind of Iowan to caucus for Huckabee on Jan. 3. Huckabee’s campaign has been replete with such uses of faith, including other ads touting his Christian leadership and gratuitous quotations from Isaiah. Asked about his surge in the polls, Huckabee said earlier this month, “There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people.”
As he flashes his cross for all to see, Huckabee and his campaign routinely launch populist tirades against economic conservatives, denouncing “the Club for Greed” and the “Washington-Wall Street Axis.” He is denouncing people whose support he will need if he wins the nomination — and considering his record of raising taxes, one might expect a more conciliatory approach. He has adopted the language of President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” also known as “bigger government.” He prefers talks with Iran to further confrontation, but beyond that has been far from articulate on foreign policy.
In the opposite corner stands former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the fading frontrunner and Huckabee’s polar opposite. Giuliani’s personal life is the dream of every opposition researcher. Any dip into the New York Post archives on the twice-divorced Catholic Giuliani — who his Church may come to criticize along the way — gives credence to Hillary Clinton as a champion of family values.
Giuliani is pro legal abortion, and this alone will cost him many votes, both in the primary and in a general election against a pro-abortion Democrat. Unlike Huckabee, Giuliani looks to be trying to attract Republicans who disagree with him on key issues, yet his nomination would nonetheless create the greatest demand for a third-party candidate since 1996, or even 1992.
Giuliani’s record on taxes and his understanding of complex economic issues such as health insurance are his main selling points for the average conservative. But on just about everything else — including gun rights — he is a Republican apostate. While distancing himself from Bush’s failure of “compassionate conservatism,” Rudy advocates an even more aggressive foreign policy that may include war with Iran. For those already firmly in his camp, this is terrific — for many others on the Right, it is terrifying.
A Huck-Rudy showdown would be a primary fight between two candidates with almost nothing in common. It would polarize and tear apart the Republican party just as the national electorate is currently polarized.
Such a disaster is a very distinct possibility. If Huckabee takes out Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire, or else heads off a resurgent McCain in South Carolina (or even Michigan), everything could come down to the close race developing between Huckabee and Giuliani in Florida. By the time Feb. 5 is over, Huckabee and Giuliani could be the clear frontrunners with their delegate counts, and more than half the convention delegates will have already been awarded.
For the late contests, Republicans of one stripe would decide that Rudy is the only man who can stop Huckabee. And Republicans of a different stripe would fall in behind Huckabee as the only man who can stop Rudy. This bitter fight would also leave many Republican voters with a paralyzing choice between two poor general election candidates. From there, it becomes a Republican blood feud unless a third candidate can force a brokered convention.
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.