WATERLOO, IOWA—Former Mayor Bernie McKinley's first impression of Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was downright dismissive. "My thought was, he doesn't have a chance," says McKinley, 78, who led this city out of tough times during the late 1980s. "And I don't want to put my money behind someone who's not going to win."
But times are changing here in Iowa. Count the popular ex-mayor among the growing number of Huckabee converts who have made the money-challenged former Arkansas governor a contender with less than seven weeks to go before the state's crucial presidential caucuses. "I was struck by his belief in fundamental Christian values, by his sense of humor, and consistency," says McKinley, who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. "So I wrote him a check, and volunteered to be his precinct chairman. That's the point of no return."
Huckabee's remarkable ascent—the conservative ordained Baptist minister barely registered in the Iowa polls until he placed second in the August GOP straw poll—has put him within striking distance of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, who has spent a record $10.2 million on television ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. (Huckabee has not aired an ad.) The long shot's rise has underscored the volatility of Iowa's first-in-the nation presidential test—and the uncertainty that grips both the GOP and Democratic races. Iowa's January 3 party caucuses will be make-or-break time for many campaigns and will set the trajectory for the early, unrelenting primary season to come.
Wide open. Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register's respected Iowa Poll, characterized the 2008 contest as the "most open presidential race in generations." There is no incumbent or vice president running, and both sides are stocked with qualified candidates. The whole process is awash with money that's being used to cajole legions of wait-and-see Iowans like Democrat Monica McCarthy of Creston, who says she will sit down with a friend over a pitcher of beer around Christmas time to "make our lists and decide."
Retired firefighter Terry Stewart, 62, chairman of the Dubuque County Democrats and a Chris Dodd supporter, says, "It's anybody's game here." Polls suggest he is correct. Republicans Romney and Huckabee are locked in a two-man race, with Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Fred Thompson fading but alive, and Ron Paul a wild card. Failing to win would be a huge blow to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has bet a fortune and his candidacy on winning Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Democratic contest remains a dead heat among Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. Clinton, the national front-runner, has been weakened in recent weeks by her opponents' stepped-up attacks. Those attacks were honed recently at the Iowa Democrats' annual Jefferson and Jackson Dinner, where Obama—who needs a first- or second-place finish here—accused Clinton of taking poll-driven positions, particularly on issues of national security, because she is "worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say." He offers himself as an antidote to partisanship stoked during the Clinton administration. Edwards, whose future hinges on winning Iowa, criticized the former first lady for failing to deliver on her 1990s healthcare initiative. Electing Clinton, he told supporters at an event in Dubuque last week, would be "trading a crowd of corporate Republicans for a crowd of corporate Democrats."
Switching gears. Clinton, who had previously not engaged her critics, changed her strategy at last week's Las Vegas debate. She challenged Obama and Edwards on issues including healthcare policy and accused her rivals of "throwing mud" and cribbing from the GOP campaign book.
The race promises to get even nastier. With little to define them on big issues, the Iowa contest has become one of small increments—daily victories like Clinton's strong debate performance and Obama's regional United Auto Workers endorsement last week, or losses like the brickbats Edwards took for saying he didn't know if he'd support Clinton if she were the nominee. (He now says he would.) They're all angling for a breakout to wrap up Iowans like Suellen Flynn, 52, of Dubuque. "I'm like a kid in a candy store," Flynn says. "Which chocolate should I pick?"