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Huckabee, Brownback and the Race for Iowa

By Reid Wilson

Mike Huckabee says he's leading the Republican field. The former governor of Arkansas hears a message from Republicans he visits around the state of Iowa: None of the front-running GOP candidates has captured the minds of the state's social conservatives, a population that comprises a majority of the caucus-going population. "The current leader in the Republican primary is 'none of the above,'" Huckabee said in an interview. "And that would be me."

To Iowa social and religious conservatives, Huckabee, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and, to a lesser extent, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo may in fact be candidates more in line with their ideologies. But because of media coverage and the incredible amounts of money being raised by front-running candidates, coupled with what many feel are those front-runners perceived lack of conservative credentials, socially conservative Hawkeyes have yet to coalesce behind any candidates, much less unite behind one standard-bearer.

In fact, many leaders of the social conservative movement seem to be more set on derailing certain candidacies than on promoting behind one of their own. If your name is Rudy Giuliani or John McCain, it seems, you are persona non grata among top social conservative names. Social conservatives, says University of Iowa Professor David Redlawsk, "see the three frontrunners as not necessarily one of them."

Steve Scheffler is a typical example of a social conservative leader in Iowa today. The president of the Iowa Christian Alliance seems more concerned with McCain's candidacy, and how to derail it, than he is with finding a consensus conservative. McCain and Giuliani both skipped an Iowans for Tax Reform forum several months ago, because of scheduling issues, they said. "When they get event requests on the same day, they prioritize," Scheffler said. "So I guess they're not interested in addressing social conservatives."

Iowa Right to Life President Kim Lehman echoes the sentiment when she warns candidates against going negative against someone who might be the future nominee. "As long as it's not Giuliani, we all have to go support that candidate" in the general, she said.

Unlike McCain and Giuliani, Brownback and Huckabee fit in as "one of them," the social conservatives. They have few last-minute conversions on issues that social conservatives care about; they have had only one wife a piece; and each can point to issues on which he has led - both point to their support of the second amendment, their opposition to same-sex marriage and their pro-life stands. Huckabee brags about his time as governor, while Brownback takes credit for leading Samuel Alito through contentious confirmation hearings and onto the Supreme Court.

Each plays well to the social conservative audience, which, depending on how it is defined, can range from half to three-quarters of those who will participate in the Republican caucuses. The campaigns are taking the same approach to wooing those voters, working the grassroots and "doing what you do in Iowa," said Redlawsk, "which is going to every little town meeting with every little group" in the state.

Brownback and Huckabee are also targeting the candidate they see as the greatest threat to their own victories. But that's where the problem between the two campaigns crops up. To Brownback, that candidate is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. To Huckabee, it's Brownback.

Brownback questions Romney's commitment to the conservative cause, most recently when Romney released an advertisement, called "Ocean," citing the prevalence of pornography as a danger to children. Brownback's campaign sent out a press release criticizing the governor for serving on the board of directors of Marriott International, the hotel chain, which makes money from pornographic movies customers buy. It is hardly the only example of Brownback's press shop bird-dogging Romney; the senator's campaign even proposed the word "mitt-amorphasis" for inclusion in the dictionary (synonyms: "flip-flopper, opportunist, chameleon, unelectable, John Kerry").

The campaign is doing more than just criticizing Romney. In fact, says Brownback spokesman John Rankin, with a paid Iowa staff of 14 along with 46 full-time interns, the campaign is competing on a manpower level as well. "Our Iowa organization, just because of its scope, is more in competition with Romney than other second-tier candidates," he said.

By taking aim at a candidate who receives much more free media than he does, Brownback hopes to find himself mentioned as the conservative alternative to Romney. He hopes attacking what he sees as the media's presumptions about the race could fundamentally change it. "Like me," he told Real Clear Politics in an interview, social conservatives "notice the feeling that the national media has put on a number of candidacies, none of which are acceptable to them. I think they are bent on upsetting" that presumption.

Huckabee, though, wants Brownback out of his way. Asked what separates him from Brownback, Huckabee throws down the gauntlet: "The key difference is I've actually been a governor for ten and a half years and I've run a government." Huckabee is not shy about why he would be the more electable conservative. "No senator has been elected since JFK," he said, "and frankly there's a good reason for that." If a member of the legislative branch can't change Washington, they are either "part of the problem," he said, or they haven't been strong enough in enacting change.

Both candidates are putting all their eggs in Iowa's basket. "We're literally going town to town and gathering up all the folks we can," said Huckabee, on a cell phone traveling between Marshalltown and Nevada, two small towns just north of Des Moines (Huckabee pronounced the latter's second syllable to rhyme with "bay," the correct pronunciation for the town, as opposed to the state, whose second syllable should sound like the "a" in "bad").

But each still has a lot of work to do. "The two of them both have potential," said Scheffler, "but I don't believe they have the staff to help deliver" victories at the GOP's straw poll in Ames or during the caucuses. "At this point," Lehman said, Huckabee and Brownback "are both battling for those pro-life voters," which she says makes up 70% of the GOP caucus-going population.

It has been said that there are three tickets a candidate can get to advance past Iowa: Win, place or show. It is unlikely that both Brownback and Huckabee will get into the top three, and given how much effort both are pouring into performing well in Ames next month, it is possible that one will not survive past August. "The straw poll still does matter," said Redlawsk, even after McCain and Giuliani pulled out. "It matters for these second-tier guys.

Huckabee told the Des Moines Register last week that he would re-evaluate his White House bid if he finishes fourth or worse in Ames. And Brownback's team of staffers and his prominent positioning as the first booth everyone will see in Ames will contribute to the notion that he, too, needs a good finish (Added bonus: Brownback tells RCP that Stephen McEveety, one of the producers of "The Passion of the Christ," will join him at the straw poll booth to welcome voters).

Political watchers in Iowa almost unanimously agree that Brownback has the better organization in the state, and they believe he is ahead of Huckabee among social conservatives. But recent polls have shown Huckabee's support among GOP caucus-goers rising, to as high as 7% in a Mason-Dixon poll last month, ahead of McCain and Brownback, who tied at 6%.

The two candidates most likely to fit the mold of a social conservative, though, could split each other's votes and pave the way for another candidate to surprise the media with a strong finish. "Tancredo is making some visible inroads," Scheffler said.

If either candidate feels they are backed into a corner, they are likely to take whatever steps they feel necessary to win. And while both men respect each other, they both acknowledge there is a problem. "There's certainly respect there," said Huckabee. "It's just that, without a doubt, we're going after the same voters."

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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