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Mr. Perfect’s Slip

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On the face of it, the plan made sense—until Huckabee caught fire, that is, and exposed its fragility. For much of the year, the former Arkansas governor was barely an asterisk in national polls, and because he was pitifully underfunded, it was presumed, not least by Romney’s people, that he would remain so. But Huckabee’s geniality and sense of humor, his estimable performance skills, and his apparent authenticity always made him a credible dark horse. And his pedigree as a Baptist minister, together with his unabashed embrace of the tenets of Christianism (the man happily admits to not believing in evolution and speaks openly of a divine hand propelling his political ascent), always made him a credible claimant to the Evangelical vote.

The speed and precipitousness of Huckabee’s rise—he now leads in Iowa and has soared to second place in the national polls—have been truly shocking. And his new prominence has already garnered him a withering and unfamiliar brand of scrutiny. His alleged intervention on behalf of a convicted rapist in Arkansas, fairly or not, has Willie Horton written all over it. But Huckabee is connected to a deep network of politically minded pastors in Iowa, which could readily play a pivotal role in helping turn out the Evangelical vote for him there. (In the past, roughly a third of all caucus-goers have been Christian-right voters.) And if that happens, there is every chance that he could carry the day on January 3.

That Romney felt compelled to give his religion speech is a clear indicator of how spooked he is by Huckabee. But among politico-religious operatives, there’s no shortage of doubt that Romney’s maneuver will have much effect in Iowa. “The support for Huckabee isn’t anti-Mormon,” says one such strategist. “It’s pro-Evangelical—and that’s something Romney, no matter how many speeches he gives, will never be.”

What the old Republican Party would have done is anoint a front-runner and let him run the table.

A loss in Iowa would make New Hampshire a must-win state for Romney. And, indeed, as is the case for Hillary Clinton, the Granite State has long been viewed as his fire wall. But although Romney’s lead there remains healthy, there are signs it could crumble. Last week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll found that about two thirds of Romney’s supporters say they would consider voting for someone else.

And who might that be? Perhaps—another shocker—John McCain. Having staked his campaign on the state he won in the 2000 race, McCain, back aboard the Straight Talk Express, seems to be regaining something approaching his old form. And according to a McCain strategy memo circulating last week, a recent Fox News survey showed him as the second choice of 45 percent of Romney voters.

The truth is that, should Romney lose in Iowa, McCain, Huckabee, or Giuliani could smite Mitt down in New Hampshire and beyond. Giuliani and McCain have long commanded greater support outside Iowa and New Hampshire than Romney, who has struggled all year to break out of single digits in the national polls. And the fact that Huckabee, still a largely unknown commodity, has swiftly moved past Romney gives the lie to the long-espoused argument from Mitt’s camp that his anemic support is merely a function of low name recognition. What Huckabee, McCain, and Giuliani have in common is that each of them, unlike Romney, has a bona fide, albeit limited, constituency: for Huckabee, social conservatives; for McCain, foreign-policy hawks and immigration doves; for Rudy, tough-on-terror types and anti-taxers. (Last week, please note, our former mayor garnered the closest thing to an endorsement anyone is going to get from Grover Norquist, the Washington ayatollah of tax-cutting zealots.) What they also share is that each is running an unconventional campaign: ignoring supposedly unignorable constituencies, opting out of allegedly unskippable caucuses and primaries.

In the past, of course, none of these campaigns would have stood a chance in the GOP: the orderly party, the disciplined party, the party of primogeniture. What the old Republican Party would have done is anoint a front-runner and let him run the table. Someone who’d touched all the bases, ticked off all the boxes. Someone like Mitt, that is. But instead here he is, mired in such desperation that he believed he had no choice but to undertake the boldest act of his candidacy—a what-the-fuck, double-down wager whose biggest conceivable payoff might be the elimination of just one reason why a small segment of Republican voters might have voted against him. (As opposed to, you know, giving them an affirmative reason to vote for him.) Pity poor Mitt, a capable guy, a plausible front-runner, now on the verge of seeing his fondest dreams dashed because his party started acting like … well, Democrats.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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