Was just talking to a friend who’s a shrewd political observer and sees the Republican race probably coming down to the insurgent Huckabee versus a more “mainstream” Republican candidate, in a repeat of the Buchanan v. Dole and McCain v. Bush races. He thinks Romney now survives a loss to Huckabee in Iowa, although it’s possible that losing in an utter blowout would hurt his brand so much that he goes down in New Hampshire too and it’s all over for him. There is now obviously an evangelical backlash going on in Iowa and there will probably be a backlash against the evangelical backlash in New Hampshire. That means someone else besides Huckabee probably wins there.
If it is Romney or McCain, he becomes the candidate of the Republican establishment. He will stand a very good chance of ultimately vanquishing Huckabee because he will represent the conservative mainstream better and, besides, insurgents usually lose in the GOP. The stakes are huge for Romney and McCain in New Hampshire. Whoever loses there is out of the race. If Romney wins, he’ll probably be in good shape in Michigan and Nevada, although he’ll have a tough fight on his hands in South Carolina and perhaps in Florida too, if Rudy is still viable (more about him in a second). If McCain wins, he–incredibly enough–will be in position to become the candidate of the Republican establishment. Plus, he matches up against Huckabee well because the immigration issue–his major vulnerability among Republicans–is more or less neutralized.
Then, there’s Rudy. A lot rides on New Hampshire for him as well. He probably has to finish at least a strong second there to stay in healthy shape. If he’s second, he has to hope that Huckabee mortally wounds the winner of New Hampshire, Romney or McCain, in South Carolina. If that happens, then it’s a Huck v. Rudy race that could be an utter bloodbath for the GOP because opposite sides of the coalition could stomp off if their preferred candidate doesn’t win. Rudy’s job of keeping the party together as a pro-choicer becomes much tougher if he’s beaten Huckabee in a drawn-out struggle.
Finally, there’s Fred. All this could be scrambled if he has a great next three weeks and, say, finishes, a strong second in Iowa.
The upshot is still that Huckabee probably doesn’t win (although a social conservative friend of mine who follows this day-by-day finally told me for the first time today that he thinks there’s a plausible if unlikely Huckabee scenario to get the nomination). But even if Huckabee doesn’t win, at this point he looks as if he will become the most important social conservative in the country, replacing Falwell and Robertson. He will be a major power-broker in the party, and you can rest assured it will be a hell of a convention speech. Fwiw…