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A hopeful McCain looks ahead as Huckabee and Romney go after each other in Iowa

Mike Huckabee
REUTERS/Andy Clark
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee answers questions during a news conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

CLEAR LAKE, IOWA—When John McCain strode into the Mason City Municipal Airport last Thursday, a seize-the-moment feeling filled the air. The campaign stop was a noon event, not long after the news of the Benazir Bhutto assassination in Pakistan hit the United States. The national newsies were already in a froth over how the killing would change the landscape of the Iowa caucuses.

So, this was McCain’s big chance, a time when he could tell the roughly 250 assembled in the Northwest/KLM gate that moments like this one were exactly why he should be president. The senator from Arizona was relaxed, dress in a checked shirt, slacks and a fleece pullover. He teasingly mentioned the temperature in Phoenix — something that resonated with the mostly 70-something crowd. Then he moved on to Pakistan.

“Nothing in the Middle East is simple, as you well know,” he said without a hint of condescension. “I tell you all of these things because there’s a lot of forces at play here.” He then delivered, with no notes, an impressive knowledge of the political and geographic history of Pakistan and tried to bring the story back home — emphasizing his personal relations with Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

But the Bhutto assassination had little ripple effect in Iowa. Nearly all the candidates, notably McCain and Hillary Clinton, tried to turn it into a caucus bonanza, but the simple fact is nearly all issues in Iowa this time around are local. Sure, there’s an abstract worry about the war and expressed vigilance about terrorism, but bread-and-butter domestic issues are what’s resonating in the Heartland right now.

Which explains why Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are polling so high. Both are happy to play the nativist card with the core conservative base, which makes up about 40 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers, according to most estimates. A globalist like McCain — who’s on the record in the corn state as being against ethanol production, for crying out loud — doesn’t stand a chance against the bald displays of provincial jingoism that Huckabee and Romney have gravitated toward.

Or does he? Odd things have happened to the Republicans in Iowa since McCain’s campaign ran out of money and suffered a mass exodus of staffers earlier this year. For starters, the quixotic campaign of Ron Paul has managed to track in Iowa, despite the Texas congressman’s lack of ground support and appearances in the state until recently. Rudy Giuliani, banking almost entirely on Florida to deliver him the party’s nomination, has alienated Iowa caucus-goers like almost no one in recent memory. There’s a growing feeling on the ground that Fred Thompson is not altogether interested in the job, let alone winning votes. McCain has been mired with these candidates in the polls, but there’s a good bet he could rise above, especially now that Romney and Huckabee are taking swings at each other, going negative down the home stretch.

“People are giving him a second look,” said Mike Mahaffey, a lawyer from Montezuma who was the state’s Republican chairman during the 1988 election cycle. (The “second look” notion was parroted by other McCain supporters.) “He’s got no television, but he’s getting some positive press and drawing decent crowds. With a second look, anything can happen.”

Not even Mahaffey, who says he’s supporting McCain, expects the senator to finish in the lofty high-20-percent range like Romney and Huckabee are expected to. But it’s looking more and more like McCain could finish a strong third, which would set him up quite nicely to win in New Hampshire and show well in South Carolina, with Iowa setting the course for a good run before convention time. “McCain could be comeback codger,” read one headline in the Des Moines Register last week.

In addition, the Grand Old Party is struggling for an identity, a galvanizing figure, in a way that hasn’t been since the days of Gerald Ford’s failed re-election bid more than 30 years ago. It’s hardly a given that any Iowa front runner will become the face of the party in 2008. “Nobody is really sure what we’re looking for,” Mahaffey surmised Monday, adding that a no-nonsense candidate might come into vogue. “People are realizing the world is not a safe place. It’s not warm and fuzzy.”

Soft on immigration, bullish on climate change
McCain seems to have overcome his gaffe of this campaign, when he was caught on video singing “bomb Iran” to the tune of “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys earlier this year. But he’s no less iconoclastic. And while he’s a far cry from his heyday on the Straight Talk Express, he’s not afraid to say the wrong things for the right reasons.

“He has authenticity, honesty and integrity,” said Bill Schickel, a state rep from Mason City, at the airport last week.

Perhaps too much so. For Iowa Republicans of a certain vintage, illegal immigration is the hot-button issue of the year. Many residents in their 60s or 70s have seen an influx of Latinos settle in their towns like Sioux City and Denison — and they don’t like it. (The signs in the Mason City airport were bilingual.) In a November Iowa Poll, 81 percent of Iowa Republicans identified immigration as a “key issue,” barely trailing “national security” and “terrorism.” Anything short of a wall sealing off the Mexican border and total deportation of the estimated 12 million Latinos living in the U.S. illegally is heresy in some circles.

But McCain is really not worked up on the issue, remaining unapologetic on his co-sponsorship of a congressional bill that offered guest workers’ rights and “a path to citizenship.” He echoed that sentiment in Mason City. More than that, McCain laid out a plan for dealing with climate change, which is not widely believed to be a truism in many pockets of the state. “I know there’s a lot of skeptics in this audience,” McCain said, emphasizing the economic benefits of going green. “But what if we’re right and do nothing?”

When he was done, McCain answered questions from the audience for nearly 30 minutes — a gambit of going off script that few other candidates are willing to do. (“I’ll take questions, comments and insults,” he said with what is a truly wry humor he possesses.) Of the first three questions, two accused him of being soft on immigration, and one dismissed the notion of climate change altogether. But McCain stuck to his guns, either out of personal conviction or compulsive political suicide. “Immigration?” McCain said at first, laughing. “This meeting is adjourned.” Either way, his stance had the faint ring of nobility.

McCain is also the rare Republican who is willing to speak complexly about the war. While he praised President Bush for “sticking to it in the face of criticism,” the senator noted that the most trenchant criticism has come from him. “The Rumsfeld strategy was a failure,” and McCain said so at the time, he said. But now the surge, he said, is working, and it was a strategy along the lines of something McCain had proposed all along. It’s a clever bit of gamesmanship, speaking out against how the war was waged without falling into anti-war rhetoric that would rile the hawks.

So, Mac is back, as one sign in the audience said. One poll that came out Tuesday had McCain at 13 percent, pulling away from Ron Paul and indicating a noted slide from Giuliani and Fred Thompson. But does “the McSurge” mean anything for Iowa? “We’ve been dead last all summer,” Schickel said. “We’re going to do as well as we can to send him off to New Hampshire.”

Romney and his religiosity
Of course, in Iowa, it is really a two-candidate race. Tuesday’s Iowa Poll but puts McCain far behind Mitt Romney (26 percent) and Mike Huckabee (32 percent). It’s a small drop for Romney, after leading for much of the fall, but there is room to overtake Huckabee if he wants it.

The question is, who does Romney really appeal to? If McCain’s supporters admire him for taking stands on issues that aren’t necessarily agreeable with the base’s politics, then Romney is only tracking well because he remains vague on a number of issues. His well-known about-face on abortion rights heading into the caucuses allowed opponents to paint him as a flip-flopper, but in truth it’s hard to discern where Romney stands beyond the platitudes he offers in his stump speeches.

“Romney represents the financial wing of the Republican Party,” said Dave Nagel, a former congressmen and Democratic Party chair from Waterloo. “And that has value in Iowa.”

No doubt Romney has spent money to get this far, and certainly projects an image as someone who has accomplished things in the private sector, as governor in Massachusetts, and as CEO of the 2002 Olympics, where he cleaned up a corruption scandal. His role there, in fact, remains his calling card to many potential voters.

Much has also been made of his Mormonism, which initially looked like a liability. But in Iowa, Romney has been campaigning hard southeast of Des Moines, where a sort of Bible belt takes shape — he’s gong hard after the Christian conservative vote. This would seem counter-intuitive, given that being Mormon hardly equates with being evangelical. But Romney is accruing many Christian conservatives, amazingly enough, given that Huckabee is actually an evangelical.

At one stop in Pella on Saturday, Ben Tune traveled all the way from Hurst, Texas, with his wife and two children just to hear Romney speak on the hustings. Tune, 35, called himself an evangelical and acknowledged that he was tracking Huckabee, but was curious about Romney.

“I like Huckabee; he’s a conservative Christian,” Tune said. “But I don’t want this to be just an election on Christianity.”

Ultimately, Tune remained lukewarm on Romney. Of course, Tune can’t caucus in Iowa anyway, but he did travel just to see the governor — which shows a remarkable word-of-mouth influence in some Christian circles. In the end, though, Romney failed to sway him, Tune said, because he offered nothing concrete in his speech and didn’t take questions.

It is true that Romney has what could charitably be called a businessman’s efficiency to his stump speech. It lasts about 10 minutes, and never goes beyond campaign sloganeering. At a coffee shop in Oskaloosa, just after the appearance in Pella, Romney’s staff — straight out of a Young Republicans catalog — worked over the crowd of about 70 supporters. When Romney arrived to speak, in a navy blue button-down shirt and sharply pressed khakis, he had already scoped out who was there: He talked explicitly about “upholding the values of tradition marriage” — read anti-gay — and working on deporting illegal immigrants. He then launched into a diatribe on the “threat of radical jihad” before running through a laundry list of issues: Jobs, health care (private, free market insurance), education and energy. He said all of these issues faced “challenges.” The entire event was over in 20 minutes.

Romney certainly has the chiseled features that play especially well on TV and fiscal bona fides to be a real contender, but it’s not sure that he stirs much passion in person. Which may be why he’s slipping in Iowa.

“We’ve always had trouble with guys in $4,500 suits,” Nagel said.

Former Republican Party Mahaffey chair was more frank, calling Romney a hypocrite on immigration, and shallow on other things. “He makes a good impression,” Mahaffey said. “It’s like they put an automatic computer chip in the back of his skull for each appearance depending on what he’s supposed to say.”

Huckabee as everyman
If Romney comes off as too lacquered some Iowans, then that explains Huckabee’s rise heading into today’s caucuses. Huckabee has the same kind of small-town charm that make Iowans love Bill Clinton — the coincidence of their Arkansas backgrounds cannot be overlooked. It’s no accident that in the days after Christmas, Huckabee was inviting reporters along on hunting trips across the state. His aw-shucks demeanor makes him a popular figure across age, gender and even party lines.

“Huckabee is for real,” said Democrat Dave Nagel. “In many ways he’s the perfect candidate for Iowa.” Huckabee’s popularity in the state may also be a direct result of the other candidates: Romney has been referred to as “Slick Mitt” in some circles, McCain was a forgotten man until just seven days ago, and Giuliani and Thompson have put in half-hearted efforts to win Hawkeye hearts and minds.

“Iowans were ready to look away from Rudy’s personal troubles,” posited Nagel. “But his financial dealings have turned people away.”

And that’s the best thing that can happen to Huckabee, who has done very well with the skeletons in his closet. He’s managed to play up his evangelical bona fides with being overtly religious or contentious — “I’m conservative, but I’m not angry about it,” is his quip — and conveys managerial skills during his time as governor. Simple fact is, he’s appealing. “And he’s so cute,” one young female supporter gushed at a campaign stop in Indianola. The New York Times magazine profile on him just before Christmas painted a flattering portrait of the man — a report that spread around the state in the waning weeks.

Still, there is a question about his lack of experience, and a perception that he’s soft on immigration. More importantly, Huckabee may be experiencing the boon of an early caucus, which is a month earlier than four years ago. Huckabee may be benefit from having caucus-goers make their choices before the bloom can fall of his rose.

“I like Huckabee, and I like that he is a man of faith,” said Cornie Brouwer, a 54-year-old landscaper from Oskaloosa who is leaning toward Romney. “But I’m starting to wonder where he is on immigration, and I’m not sure he has the experience in business to have real leadership skills.”

And there is the simple fact of money: He doesn’t have any. Romney’s got a war chest that can be refilled at any time with his own personal fortune. McCain is also light in the wallet, but he has support outside of Iowa, going into the next two states. Ultimately, Huckabee needs a very strong first-place showing to continue on.

Additionally, it’s not certain that either Romney or Huckabee is gaining momentum in Iowa. The Des Moines Register reported Wednesday that many self-described independents are leaning toward caucusing for Democratic candidates, for whatever that’s worth.

“It’s going to be Huckabee/Romney at one or two, we know that,” said Mahaffey. “And if Huckabee comes in second here and the likely third in New Hampshire, then it’s a long haul for him. He might have surged a little too soon.”

G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

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