Eve of NH: Reagan forsaken?

Rumors of Mrs. Clinton’s demise are greatly exaggerated. True, she is reeling after a weak showing in Iowa, but the first subsequent poll (USA Today/Gallup) still showed her tied nationally with Barack Obama, and prior to Iowa she held a consistent double-digit lead in national polls for months. Indeed, to this point nobody else has led nationally in the Democratic race. And though Obama looks likely to win New Hampshire and South Carolina in the coming days on the strength of far greater likeability than Mrs. Clinton – particularly among men – contests in big states like Florida, New York, and California where Clinton is strong still remain.

[Note: See also the NH forecast by John Andrews and Joshua Sharf on the Gang of Four blog.]

Moreover, the larger Clinton machine and network, one of the most powerful in recent political memory, remains formidable in Democratic circles. Obama has a shot, to be sure, but media hype about the race being Obama’s to lose is just hype.

On the GOP side, mediocrity is breeding ambivalence. A field of philosophically lackluster candidates has made for the most evenly-matched race in recent memory, with leading conservatives everywhere lamenting that these are the best a wandering Republican Party can produce. There is no Reagan in sight. Rudy Guiliani has led in national polls for months but began sliding toward the end of November as Mike Huckabee skyrocketed.

Huckabee’s meteoric rise, which over-exposed Republican pundit and focus group organizer Frank Luntz has called “unprecedented in modern political history,” began around Nov. 25, the very day Huckabee began airing his famous “Christian leader” ad.

Interpretation: evangelical social conservatives are still numerous in the South (South Carolina) and Midwest (Iowa) and, prior to Huckabee’s series of bold statements regarding his faith and social conservatism, had not seen anyone or anything in the race that made it interesting to them. Huckabee followed up the “Christian leader” ad with his famous Christmas ad which, as such things do, terrified secular media pundits with visions of hovering crosses (actually just lighted bookshelves) and tyrannical Christian theocracy.

Huckabee’s faith is obviously genuine, his knowledge of the Bible obviously thorough (he is halfway to a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas), and his answers to media questions regarding evolution and religion unwavering. Here, for instance, on evolution. Or here on whether he believes the Bible.

If you don’t understand how energizing this is to evangelicals, the largest single bloc of Republican voters, you don’t understand evangelical Christianity. Huckabee is also a solid conservative on abortion and homosexual marriage, furthering buttressing his appeal to evangelicals. He combines this kind of backbone on his faith with a quick wit and guy-next-door likeability that is disarming even to those who distrust his Christianity.

His response to those who saw a “floating cross” in his Christmas ad: “I will confess this: if you play the spot backwards it says, ‘Paul is dead. Paul is dead.’” And here is his appearance on the Jay Leno show on the eve of the Iowa caucus (watch both parts – he plays bass guitar with Leno’s band in the second). Finally there was his debate crowd-pleaser back in May: “Congress spends money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."

Huckabee is the only candidate in the race with a Reagan-style wit and charm, to say nothing of an unashamed belief in the historic Christian religion. There is only one problem. On foreign policy and military matters, taxes and fiscal matters, the welfare state, law and order, and immigration, Huckabee’s record is either confused or outright liberal. He represents the rebirth of pre-Reagan evangelical politics – William Jennings Bryan reincarnated. Bryan opposed evolution, supported Prohibition, and preached evangelical salvation, but supported the nationalization of railroads, the disbanding of trusts, and many other important free-market economic priorities of industry captains. He and Huckabee represent more a brand of Christian populism than a coherent conservatism.

Thus, the larger Republican base remains unenergized by Huckabee, and many military, foreign policy, fiscal, law enforcement, and immigration conservatives actively oppose him. These people are either settling for McCain or Guiliani – the two most liberal candidates in the race – if they are weak on social issues, or, with national conservative organ National Review, agreeing Mitt Romney is the conservative candidate of choice in a weak field. Romney’s conversion to social conservatism is too recent for the comfort of many (myself included), making his seemingly courageous adherence to his Mormon faith, which clearly teaches social conservatism, ring a bit hollow. But he does appear the best of the field.

As of now, McCain looks as though he has sealed up New Hampshire. Romney’s father was governor of Michigan once upon a time, making Romney strong there, but Huckabee is running a close second and has South Carolina in the bag. It is thus very possible that, by the time Super Tuesday rolls around, when Guiliani still looks to win big states like California, New York, and Pennsylvania, there could be three different early GOP winners, and thus no clear frontrunner. This is Guiliani’s dream scenario.

Sigh. For now, Reagan’s revolution does appear to be at an end.