The 2008 Republican Presidential race might just possibly turn into a replay of 1996–with some tweaking. In 1996 Pat Buchanan upset GOP frontrunner Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary. Buchanan received so much of a bandwagon effect from all the media hype over his unexpected win that, for a short time, Dole went back to Kansas to nurse his wounds and consider dropping out of the race. Then Buchanan was defeated by Stevo “Flat Tax” Forbes in Arizona, where conservative retirees liked Forbes’ fiscal policies more than Buchanan’s xenophobia. That allowed Dole to jump back into the race and trounce Buchanan and Forbes in the South Carolina primary and then march on to the nomination unimpeded. A Huckabee win in Iowa may do the same thing to Republicans in 2008, with the possibility of the GOP nominating a candidate perceived to be too far to the right wing of the party to win nationally may precipitate the party rallying behind a more moderate candidate. Like John McCain.
Yes, THAT McCain.
Republicans came very close to an electoral meltdown in ’96. Had Buchanan won in Arizona and Dole dropped out, Pat would have become the GOP nominee and gone on to a landslide defeat at the hands of Bill “Love the Boom, Baby” Clinton. Buchanan’s 30% share of the New Hampshire vote would probably have translated into a 35%-40% share of the national vote, giving Clinton a landslide 60%-65% victory.
Think of what political history would have been like after this: Democrats would possibly have retaken control of the Congress in 1996 and certainly, what with the “Clinton Coattails”, done so in 1998. That means no impeachment effort. That means, come 2000, Clinton fatigue would have been minimal and popular-by-association Veep Gore trounces the nationally inexperienced George W. in 2000. Republicans would have been consigned back to the political wilderness at least until the post-9/11 election of 2004—and possibly much longer. And the world would be a very different place.
But the Republican establishment came to its senses and rallied behind the boring, competent, war hero–and unelectable–Bob Dole, understanding that not to do so would be to turn a 9% victory margin for Clinton into a 30% obliteration. History may repeat itself in 2008.
In recent polls Mike Huckabee has surged to the forefront in Iowa, ahead of Rudi and Mitt, who have invested millions of dollars and several years to try and shake every farmer’s hand. All now, apparently, for not. This may set up Huckabee to be the Buchanan of 2008 What if Iowa does heart Huckabee? Let’s suppose Huckabee comes in first in the Corn State, with Romney and Giuliani place and show. That gives Huckabee a lot of momentum, to be certain, no doubt. But five short days latter the former Arkansas governor may well find that the love has gone.
Why a minimal post-Iowa bump for Huckabee? The conventional wisdom that put Mitt and Rudi so far out in front in Iowa has been skewed precisely by the big expenditures of time, money and resources these campaigns spent in Iowa. What the CW overlooks is that: a) Rudi comes from New York which, to most Iowans, is about as alien as Mars; b) Mitt is a Mormon and most Iowans have probably never even met a Mormon, let alone vote for one; and c) Mike comes from neighboring Arkansas, a state sharing far more values and characteristics with Iowa than New York, Massachusetts or even Utah.
If regionalism still means anything in American politics, it should mean something in a race between East Coast politicians and a heartland governor. Once everyone figures this out, post-Iowa, the punditocracy can then reevaluate—and downgrade–a Huckabee victory as something that they should have seen coming and, in retrospect, not as momentum-shifting a deal as the pre-Iowa hype has made it. Throw in the fact that Huckabee’s big appeal to heartland evangelicals may not play as well in more secular New Hampshire and Huckabee ends up in trouble. But to whom do New Hampshire voters turn?
What a Huckabee win in Iowa might do is cause a very strong reevaluation of the hitherto front-runners. New Hampshire has a lot of residents who live there precisely because they don’t want to have anything to do with New York, which doesn’t help Rudi from the get go. If Rudi and Mitt come out of Iowa labeled losers by media and Huckabee comes out labeled a winner who can’t win in November, voters are left by default with Fred Thompson or John McCain.
McCain, as you may recall, won in New Hampshire in 2000. If any of the current GOP candidates have a legacy claim the GOP crown, it’s McCain, who lost the first time around do to the brilliantly unconscionable Rovian negative smear attacks upon him. New Hampshire voters, left no-one to dance with, may go back to the love that got away.
(And let’s face it: the Republican in the field with the truly strongest claim to the Reagan mantle is Duncan Hunter, elected to Congress in 1980 on Reagan’s coattails—NOT Mitt and Rudi—but and that dude just ain’t gonna win.) And, while Romney, Giuliani and Huckabee have gotten spent the last few weeks getting shot up by the fratricidual negative campaign sniping they’ve unleashed, McCain has escaped such scathing precisely because he is flying under the radar.
A Huckabee Iowa win may result in McCain becoming the last man standing in New Hampshire and South Carolina. If that happens then yet another old, kinda boring but competent war hero Republican can go to defeat in November, albeit by a much smaller margin than if Huckabee became the party nominee. Just like ‘ol Bob Dole in ’96.
Lot’s of if’s and may’s, too be sure. But Mike Huckabee is probably John McCain’s best change—maybe only chance—of winning the nomination.
Who’d ‘a thunk it? A little know governor of Arkansas could make a meaningful run on the party nomination? Perish the thought. What is in the water in Arkansas by the way?
And can you bottle it and get the other presidential hopefuls to drink it?