After more than a year of campaigning, the expenditure of more than $250 million, countless TV ads, innumerable polls, and endless media speculation, the 2008 presidential race remains a muddle and is fast becoming a marathon.
Last week's first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses produced two clear and somewhat surprising winners—Republican Mike Huckabee, riding a wave of support from conservative Christians, and Democrat Barack Obama, on the strength of a huge turnout of new caucusgoers and young voters. Just as important, the winners were the youngest candidates in the field and both apostles of change. This signals that a powerful movement for shaking up the status quo could be underway across the country. "We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come," Obama told a rally in Des Moines last week, promising a new era of hope and reconciliation. In some ways, that change seems embodied in Obama himself, who if elected would be the first African-American president and,
in a parallel to John Kennedy that he welcomes, one of the youngest chief executives in history. The first-term Illinois senator, 46, won Iowa with 38 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for John Edwards and 29 percent for Hillary Clinton.
For his part, Huckabee, 52, a genial and sometimes eloquent former Baptist preacher who made his Christian faith a cornerstone of his campaign, won with about 34 percent, while Mitt Romney came in with 25 percent and John McCain and Fred Thompson each had about 13 percent. "Americans are looking for a change," Huckabee said, adding that the challenge is "to bring this country back together" and sweep elitism from Washington. It's unclear whether he can expand his base much beyond Christian conservatives, but his aides say he has the communication skills and down-to-earth charm to succeed.
Not that the race is over. Not by a long shot. The winners' margins fell far short of majorities, guaranteeing that the race will remain wide open. Several also-rans could still surge to the top, including GOP contenders Romney, McCain, and Rudy Giuliani, and Democrats Clinton and Edwards. The campaign moves to New Hampshire this week and to Michigan January 15 and Nevada January 19—and then to key primaries in South Carolina. Next, there will be a string of caucuses and primaries leading up to February 5, when 24 states hold nominating contests.
Far to go. Aside from the unpredictable horse race, the Iowa results underscored how far both major parties still have to go to assemble a majority coalition. Beyond the general mantra of "change," neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have found a unifying ideology or candidate so far. To some, the motivating principle comes down to a simple desire for victory. "What is there to hold them together?" asks presidential historian Robert Dallek. "They want to win. They want to control."
Still, the Democratic candidates seem more consistent in their basic objectives. They are contrasting themselves as much as possible with George W. Bush, promising to end the Iraq war, expand government social programs, tax the rich, broaden access to healthcare, take on special interests, and break the partisan stalemate in Washington. They are appealing to the 7 out of 10 Americans who say the country is headed in the wrong direction. But more than anyone else so far, it is Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, who has captured the mantle of change.
And it was Clinton, the former first lady who has led in national polls for many months, who endured the most serious setback on the Democratic side. Iowans never warmed up to her, reflecting her "likability problem" nationally. Many voters feel that she is too combative and calculating. And her message of Washington experience was trumped by Obama's message of starting anew. Now Clinton must scramble to somehow re-establish herself.
For the Republicans, Huckabee has catapulted from obscurity to contender by projecting himself as a populist and reformer, all wrapped in a witty, nonthreatening, and telegenic package. Significantly, he has been the strongest critic of President Bush's foreign policy aside from libertarian Ron Paul, faulting a "bunker mentality'' and arrogance that he said was counterproductive. Despite having relatively little money and making some stumbles, Huckabee persuaded his supporters to ignore attacks from former Massachusetts Governor Romney and others on his Arkansas gubernatorial record of raising taxes, increasing spending, and giving clemency to violent felons. Romney, who had gambled on a strong showing in Iowa, actually slid in recent weeks amid concerns about his Mormon faith, his changed positions on abortion and gay rights, and his perceived slickness.