- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

DES MOINES, Iowa — Mike Huckabee scored a stunning victory in Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses last night, topping Mitt Romney in a result that would have been unimaginable just two months ago.

The former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister won handily, collecting 34 percent of the vote, which is expected to garner him 30 of the 37 delegates up for grabs last night, compared with Mr. Romney’s 25 percent and seven delegates.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Sen. John McCain of Arizona were deadlocked for third at 13 percent, with 86 percent of the vote counted, trailed by Rep. Ron Paul at 10 percent.

“It starts here in Iowa, but it doesn’t end here. It goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue one year from now,” he said at his victory party last night, saying his win will start “a prairie fire” movement for voters rejecting partisan politics and opting for a populist message.

Mr. Huckabee wins momentum and the priceless publicity that victory here brings. His victory could also help with what had, until the past two months, been a very weak fundraising operation. There are a number of parallels with Sen. Barack Obama, who won Democrats’ caucuses last night. Both men campaigned on populist messages and on a call to change their parties as well as Washington politics.

None of the candidates had time to bask, rest or regroup from yesterday’s caucuses. Most of them already had flown to New Hampshire by this morning to prepare for the next major test, Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary.

Mr. Romney had spent millions of dollars here attacking Mr. Huckabee. Even as the first results were coming in, Mr. Romney told Republicans caucuses at Valley High School in West Des Moines that he would overcome a poor showing.

“If you select me, I think I’ll go on to be the nominee. If you don’t, well, I’ll still go on to be the nominee,” he said.

He later told Fox News that he was happy with his second-place finish.

“I’m looking for the gold or the silver,” he said. “I’m going to continue battling, and I will get the nomination. Congratulations to Mike, and we’ll go on to New Hampshire.” GOP250%25.jpg

The Huckabee victory will intensify the battle within the Republican Party over his appeal. He energized religious conservatives to an extent rarely seen before, but he has also angered many economic conservatives, some of whom spent hundreds of thousands of dollars independently on TV ads trying to deflate Mr. Huckabee.

Mr. Huckabee fought back charges that he raised taxes as governor by embracing the Fair Tax, a national consumption tax; he countered charges he was soft on illegal immigration by adopting a strict crackdown proposal written by one of the leaders in the anti-illegal immigration movement; and he embraced a populist economic message that was at odds with the rest of the Republican field.

He benefited from surprises such as the endorsement of tough-guy actor Chuck Norris, who provided a needed boost in buzz at exactly the right moment and was at his side when he gave his victory speech last night. And he took a gamble in the in the final days of the campaign here by pulling a negative attack ad against Mr. Romney and betting his positive message would trump the attacks, a theme that he returned to in his acceptance speech.

Mr. Huckabee said elections are “not about me … but about we, we the people” and thanked Iowans for proving that “people really are more important than the purse.”

Mr. McCain, who fled Iowa’s ice yesterday for New Hampshire’s snow even before the caucusing began, told reporters there that Mr. Huckabee’s victory was a loss for Mr. Romney’s campaign.

“I think that the lesson of this election in Iowa is that, one, you can’t buy an election in Iowa, and two, that negative campaigns don’t work. They don’t work there, and they don’t work here, in New Hampshire,” he said to cheers from supporters at an event in Manchester, N.H.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who trailed the field in Iowa with just 4 percent, was also in New Hampshire yesterday, and his campaign said Mr. Huckabee’s win keeps their big-state strategy alive.

“This race is wide open, and we will continue to run a national primary campaign designed to win the number of delegates necessary to become the Republican nominee,” his campaign manager Michael DuHaime said.

Mr. Huckabee’s victory can be traced back to an extraordinary showing at the Iowa Republican straw poll in August, when he scored a second-place showing to Mr. Romney while spending next to nothing. He also hastened the ouster of the straw poll’s third-place finisher, Sen. Sam Brownback, who had competed with Mr. Huckabee for pro-life voters.

The Huckabee strategy involved being extremely accessible to the press, which allowed him to earn press attention even as the better-funded candidates were paying for their exposure. He has also been superior in most of the Republican debates, scoring huge among focus groups.

At his victory party last night, Mr. Huckabee said he knows his road is still hard.

“I wish it were all over tonight and we could just celebrate the whole thing, but unfortunately — if this were a marathon, we’ve only run half of it, but we’ve run it well,” he said.

Even as he spoke, supporters were on the other side of a divider in the rear of the hotel ballroom eating appetizers and patronizing the cash bar, where sodas appeared to be outselling alcohol.

At his own post-caucus party Mr. Romney said he came into the race an unknown governor in a field with three better-known Republicans in Mr. McCain, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Thompson.

“Somehow, tonight we beat all of them,” he said.

Mr. Thompson will now have to consider his future. While his 13 percent vote and tied-for-third-place showing was better than polls had predicted, he had told reporters and supporters this weekend he needed to place second.

Mr. Paul’s 10 percent showing will also spur a debate among Republicans over his impact as the campaign continues.

Mr. McCain is likely to claim a victory of sorts as well, having come back from low single-digit showings in polls here in late fall.

Former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a former presidential contender himself, was stumping for Mr. McCain at the same Valley High School caucus as Mr. Romney yesterday, and he said voters have rewarded the Arizona senator’s perseverance.

“I think they’ve come to admire McCain more as he’s stood up through a tough campaign,” he said.

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