Thompson the tortoise

Huckabee is speeding up, but Thompson still might come from behind

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The Huckaboom may turn out to be the best thing that's ever happened to former Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The contest for the GOP nomination for president may well be determined by how frightened other Republicans are by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

Mr. Huckabee's meteoric rise from obscurity to frontrunner status in Iowa and a close second in national polls can be attributed both to his formidable political skills (I think he's a better natural politician than even that other guy from Hope), and to the perceived shortcomings of his competitors.

Mike Huckabee was written off before the campaign began because hardly anybody had ever heard of him, and he didn't have any money. But those who watched the presidential debates have been charmed by his quick wit and self-deprecating humor.

Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has worn his evangelical Christian faith on his sleeve, which has won him an enthusiastic base of support among those for whom abortion is the primary issue. But he has the support of few others, because most conservatives find unsettling his views on illegal immigration, taxes and spending, and national defense.

His evangelical base has pushed Mike Huckabee to near the front because there are so many other candidates, and so little enthusiasm for them. But the Huckaboom is likely to fade as those charmed by his personality learn more about his policy views and his spotty record as governor.

If the Huckaboom fades, who benefits?

First, let's consider what happens if it doesn't. Most Republicans think Mr. Huckabee would be as bad a president as Jimmy Carter, for essentially the same reasons. So if Mr. Huckabee wins the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 by a comfortable margin, there will be a rush to rally around the candidate deemed most likely to stop him. Since Rudy Giuliani has been sinking so fast in the polls you'd think he had an anvil on his chest, that figures to be either Mr. Romney or Arizona Sen. John McCain, whoever wins the New Hampshire primary Jan 8.

Sen. McCain was thought to be buried politically after his embrace of an immigration bill most Republicans hated. But like Lazarus, he's risen from the tomb. If he wins in New Hampshire, Sen. McCain would be poised to become the anti-Huckabee candidate, especially since, having lost in both Iowa and New Hampshire, few would consider Mr. Romney viable.

But if Mr. Romney beats Mr. Huckabee in Iowa, where the most recent polls indicate a tight race, then he will have the important early win many thought was denied him when the other major candidates in effect conceded Iowa to Mr. Romney last summer. Thanks to a fading Huckaboom, Mr. Romney could claim to be the Comeback Kid in this election cycle. He almost certainly would retain his current comfortable lead over Mr. McCain in New Hampshire and pick up momentum elsewhere. And if Mr. McCain loses in New Hampshire, it's hard to see how he remains viable.

There is another plausible scenario. Suppose Mike Huckabee wins, narrowly, in Iowa, with former Sen. Fred Thompson a close third. Mr. McCain goes on to win, narrowly, in New Hampshire. Mr. Huckabee is alive, but now seems very unlikely to be the nominee. Mr. Romney is on life support, but not dead, because his defeats were so narrow, and his wallet is so big. Mr. McCain is revived, but there is no rush to him because fear of Mr. Huckabee ultimately winning the nomination has diminished. And then there is Fred.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson has been written off because his campaign to date has been, to put it kindly, lackluster. But his political obituary may be as premature as Mr. McCain's.

Mr. Thompson's liability is a lot easier to fix than those of his rivals. Mitt Romney can't change the fact that he's a Mormon (which shouldn't be an issue but it is), or a recent convert to social conservatism. Rudy Giuliani is stuck with his views on abortion, his extramarital affairs and his friendship with disgraced cop Bernard Kerik. Conservatives remember how much Mr. McCain has enjoyed sticking his finger in their eye. But all Mr. Thompson has to do to dispel concerns he's lazy is to campaign hard, as he did last week in Iowa.

In a campaign marked more by who voters are against than by who they are for, Fred Thompson is a safe choice. His views -- which he articulates well -- offend none of the core constituencies in the GOP. The more Mitt and Huck fight, the better he looks to Iowa voters.

If Mike Huckabee's been the hare in this race, Fred Thompson is the tortoise. In Aesop's fable, it was the tortoise who eventually won.



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