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Why Huckabee Might Be Helping Romney

By John McIntyre

It is generally thought that Mike Huckabee's surge in the Republican race has complicated Mitt Romney's path to the nomination. And there is no arguing that the Huckabee boomlet has blown-up the Romney campaign's carefully laid plan to parlay early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire into the kind of momentum it needs to win. However, while the focus has been on Romney's fading polls in Iowa, what is underappreciated is just how much the emergence of Huckabee as the "religious" candidate has changed the dynamic of the GOP field, and changed it in a way that may be very helpful to Mitt Romney.

The Romney campaign has had an extremely disciplined and methodical approach to winning the GOP nomination. Central to Romney's strategy was adjusting most, if not all, policy positions that were at odds with the core, nominating GOP electorate. Now it should be said that all politicians tweak and massage positions when running for higher office, but the wholesale transformation on the issues of guns, gays, abortion and immigration, and its cumulative effect, has created its own set of major obstacles for the Romney campaign. On Sunday, Tim Russert methodically exposed these politically obvious flip-flops on hot-button social issues from Romney's years running for state office (1994 - 2002).

Further complicating matters for the Romney campaign has been the spectacle of this moderate businessman on social issues aggressively playing up the importance of faith in an attempt to become the "social conservative" candidate in the GOP field. The campaign's calculation was that with former Sen. George Allen of Virginia out of the race, and with the remaining viable candidates being John McCain and Rudy Giuliani (this is of course pre-Huckabee and pre-Thompson), Romney would make himself the social conservative in the field. The campaign astutely spent millions in Iowa and New Hampshire over the course of 2007 enabling Romney to occupy a place among the first tier candidates even though he languished in a distant 4th and 5th for most of the year in national surveys. In many ways, National Review, the long-standing flagship of conservative intellectual opinion, validated the effectiveness of the Romney strategy with their endorsement of the former Massachusetts governor last week.

The inherent problem for Romney in this strategy, however, is that even with early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire he was always going to have to deal with the fallout from his obvious -- and recent -- flip-flop from a moderate, Northeastern Republican on social issues to a down-the-line social conservative. While the transformation might have been necessary in order for Romney to even be a viable candidate in the Republican field, the associated baggage severely complicates Romney's ability to win in the general election. This in turn makes him a harder sell on electability grounds in head-to-head match-ups against either Giuliani or McCain to a Republican Party fighting to prevent a President Clinton or Obama. This is where Mike Huckabee may actually be doing Mitt Romney a favor.

With the former Baptist minister prominently running on his Christian faith and with Romney's long held lead in Iowa gone, the Romney camp shrewdly hyped a speech on religious freedom four weeks before the first contest. The speech received prominent national media coverage for a full week, with the quiet insinuation from the campaign that Romney's electoral problems stemmed from anti-Mormon bigotry. This allowed Romney to be viewed sympathetically as a victim of religious intolerance, both by the Republican party and the nation as a whole. The rise of Huckabee (and more importantly the fear of Huckabee as the GOP nominee) coupled with the "Mormon" speech have been the catalysts that have allowed Romney to get a second look from many Republican voters. With Huckabee now solidly on Romney's right flank as the "religious" candidate and the socially liberal Giuliani with a closet full of personal baggage on his left flank, Romney ironically might be in a stronger position coming out of a New Hampshire win to get the nomination than the non-Huckabee scenario of three months ago where he won both Iowa and New Hampshire.

The wild card of course in all of this primary gamesmanship that has to make the Romney high command extremely nervous is the unknown of just how much a loss in Iowa might hurt Romney in New Hampshire, as he tries to hold off a resurgent John McCain. The Giuliani campaign's tactical retreat from New Hampshire may be a tacit acknowledgment that suddenly a Huckabee-Romney-Giualini 3-way is not a race they want to see.

With a little over two weeks until the Iowa Caucuses the GOP nomination is as wide open as ever and there is no question that if Romney goes winless in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mike Huckabee would have dealt a death blow to his campaign. But if Mitt Romney loses Iowa and wins New Hampshire, and then goes on to win the GOP nomination, the Mike Huckabee boomlet may actually have been a key part of the dynamic as to why it happened.

John McIntyre is the co-founder & President of RealClearPolitics. Email: john@realclearpolitics.com

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