Mike Huckabee deserves congratulations this morning. We have been tough on him, and we retract not a word of our criticism. But he managed to score a big win with almost no money, no support from Republican bigwigs, and, until a few months ago, single-digit support in the polls. That he won is a testament to his sheer political talent: not only his much-discussed fluency as a speaker, but also his sense of the moment.
The fact remains that those talents would not have brought him a plurality if not for his religion and the way he has run on it. Huckabee cleaned up among evangelicals and lost, badly, among everyone else. Evangelicals will not be 60 percent of the electorate in most states. If the governor wants to win the nomination, as opposed to becoming an evangelical kingmaker, he needs to broaden his appeal to other types of conservatives.
John McCain is the other big winner from the Iowa caucuses, even though he got only 13 percent of the vote. New Hampshire is his make-or-break state. He has moved into the lead there, but Mitt Romney, who had it before, has been close behind him. Now Romney is badly hurt, and McCain’s path to winning New Hampshire is clearer. If he wins, then Romney will be further damaged. With Huckabee unacceptable to a lot of economic and national-security conservatives and Rudy Giuliani unacceptable to a lot of social conservatives, McCain could, amazingly enough, become the consensus conservative choice.
The challenge for McCain will be not to remind conservatives why they have so often found him so irritating. In 2000, it was not only his positions on issues that drove them away from him, but his self-righteousness when criticized. He has been starting to show the same trait, and relying too much, as he did back then, on the support of the media. McCain can win the nomination, but not if he throws it away—as he did in 2000, and almost did last year.
Conservatives are giving McCain a second look, and seeing a largely conservative record. Romney needs to make sure that they also continue to see his flaws, especially in New Hampshire. Criticizing McCain on taxes and immigration, as Romney has done, makes sense. But Romney’s critique of McCain on immigration has veered between sloganeering about amnesty and nitpicking about the details. His critique of McCain on taxes has been backward-looking, reprising the debates of 2001 and 2003. He needs to explain what he would do differently from McCain in both areas as president, and how it would affect ordinary voters.
Giuliani seems to be sitting on the sidelines for the next few contests, hoping that split results in them will keep the nomination in play until his strongest states hold their elections. He needs conservatives to regard him as better than McCain. That may require Giuliani to move farther right than he already has on guns and immigration. His message should be that, like McCain, he is a fighter who sometimes differs with conservatives: But he prefers fighting alongside conservatives to fighting against them.
Thompson is even more on the sidelines, without media attention, voter support, or much money. He has run an admirable race in many respects, but the odds are looking even steeper now. The strategic question for him is, sadly, whether to fold up shop. If he does, we hope other candidates will pick up his solid policy ideas in such areas as the defense budget, Social Security, and immigration.
With the Democratic race now up for grabs as well, Republican candidates will be less able to count on using rank-and-file Republicans’ hostility to Hillary Clinton as a source of cheap applause lines. They will have to spend more time outlining their disagreements with the ideas that all of the Democratic candidates have in common. That change of emphasis can only help whoever wins the Republican nomination in what will be an uphill fight this fall.