GOP Showdowns Ahead in Michigan and South Carolina

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 14, 2008 · 8:00 PM EST

If you think Mike Huckabee can’t possibly win the Republican nomination for president, you are deluding yourself. If you think Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has the GOP nomination in the bag, you need to wake up and smell the coffee.

The Republican race is still up for grabs. But as I write this, three days after New Hampshire and four days before Michigan, the GOP contest looks like a fair fight between McCain and Huckabee, with Mitt Romney needing a miracle in Michigan to stay alive.

McCain’s win in New Hampshire has given him the look of a winner, but his winning coalition may not be easily replicated in many states.

Voters who opposed the war in Iraq and were dissatisfied or angry with the Bush administration flocked to McCain, as did moderate and liberal Republicans and independents. He tied Huckabee among evangelical voters, but New Hampshire evangelicals are different from Iowa evangelicals.

McCain still must prove that he can win a closed primary and that he has enough support among Republican regulars to win his party’s nomination. He may, in fact, do so. But even if he wins in Michigan (which he also won in 2000), he still has a formidable task ahead of him, especially when the narrative gets back to immigration and some of the other things in his record.

Huckabee may not be a very good general election nominee for the GOP, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a big-time threat for the party’s nomination.

Many conservatives simply won’t warm to McCain, and social conservatives seem likely to be drawn to Huckabee throughout the South and in the Midwest, too. The calendar sets up well for him, with Michigan, South Carolina and Florida all places where he can play seriously, particularly if a conservative or two (that is, Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson) drop out.

The Wolverine State is not generally regarded as a conservative bastion, but Christian conservatives are a significant part of the GOP coalition there.

While McCain won Michigan in 2000, largely on the strength of his showing among Democrats and independents (who together accounted for 52 percent of all GOP primary voters), more than half of 2000 Republican primary voters said abortion should “never” be legal or should be legal in “few cases,” and more than a quarter (27 percent) identified themselves as members of the religious right.

But those figures understate Huckabee’s potential appeal in the state, and his initial Michigan TV spot is a perfect example of why the former Arkansas governor shouldn’t be underestimated in the contest.

Instead of promoting his “Christian values,” Huckabee, who may figure that he already has the inside track with religious conservatives, immediately launched a populist economic ad in a state that has become the nation’s economic basket case.

The opening in Huckabee’s spot — “When you grow up and life’s a struggle, you have a whole different understanding of what most people are going through” –— and the closing — “I believe most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off” — show he’s looking to broaden his support among those who are hurting economically.

Huckabee’s economic populist message should resonate well in the state and allow him to grow his support, according to one veteran GOP insider with a long track record in Michigan.

The first Michigan poll after New Hampshire showed McCain moving to the front and Romney holding a narrow advantage over Huckabee. Those numbers will change before Tuesday, but they offer the scary possibility for Romney that he could finish third in a state that he must win. (An effort by liberal blog Daily Kos to get Michigan Democrats to vote for Romney in the GOP primary obviously is a wild card.)

If McCain reassembles his 2000 Michigan coalition and Huckabee adds those hurt by the state’s economy to his socially conservative supporters, Romney will find himself squeezed, limited to the same kind of upscale Republican regulars who supported him in Iowa and New Hampshire. The former Massachusetts governor cannot afford to allow that to happen.

No matter who wins in Michigan, McCain and Huckabee seem destined to meet in South Carolina on Jan. 19, with Thompson and possibly Romney also in the contest.

Huckabee would seem to have the early edge, since 61 percent of South Carolina’s 2000 GOP primary voters identified themselves as conservative, one-third said they were part of the religious right and Huckabee’s Southern roots give him a special appeal.

But again, it’s better to look before you leap. McCain definitely can play in the Palmetto State.

McCain drew 42 percent in the state’s GOP primary against George W. Bush in 2000, not an insignificant showing by the Arizonan (especially in light of the infamous telephone campaign conducted against him). More than one in four Republican primary voters eight years ago was a veteran and 30 percent were self-described independents, a group McCain won with 60 percent in that race.

The Palmetto State is conservative, but it is also the epitome of establishment Republicanism. That’s why former Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.) defeated Pat Buchanan rather handily in the state’s 1996 presidential primary after losing to the populist former speechwriter in New Hampshire. And that race could be a model for McCain, who may become the party establishment’s choice to stop Huckabee.

The contest for the Republican nomination is really a series of very different contests, and each depends at least in part on the makeup of the field as well as on the outcome of the previous contest. For voters, as well as campaign watchers, that could make for a very fluid next four weeks.

This column also appeared in Roll Call on January 14, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.