Huckabee now faces a big challenge in New Hampshire, more secular and libertarian than Iowa and a place where his Arkansas record might be extremely damaging. It is a state that Arizona Senator McCain won in 2000, only to lose the GOP nomination to Bush, but a state where McCain remains popular. The former POW's campaign faded badly last summer when he seemed to abandon his maverick ways and nearly ran out of money. But he has been making a strong comeback. McCain's immediate problem, however, is that independents are permitted to vote in the New Hampshire primaries, and the independents may be more attracted to Obama this time around. This could seriously depress McCain's support.
Former New York Mayor Giuliani largely bypassed Iowa, and he is also lagging badly in New Hampshire. He is staking his campaign on winning the Florida primary January 29, where he has enjoyed a solid lead, and on winning most of the primaries on February 5, including the big states of California, New York, and New Jersey.
More broadly, the GOP faces intense head winds in the general election. The president and many of his policies remain unpopular; there is strong opposition to the Iraq war and growing anxiety about the economy. Candidates must walk a tightrope between loyalty to their national standard-bearer and, in the words of a strategist for a top-tier GOP presidential candidate, making a "break with the past." Just as important, the coalition cemented together by Ronald Reagan in 1980 has now fractured among economic conservatives, social conservatives, national-security hawks, and libertarians.
All this guarantees that the race for both the Democrats and the Republicans won't be decided anytime soon, perhaps not until late winter. If the muddle continues beyond February 5, the tests will keep coming with primaries within the following month in several states, including Louisiana, Virginia, Ohio, and Texas.
Third-party opening? Beyond the primaries, the way is open, at least potentially, for a serious independent or third-party presidential candidacy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is widely considered the best bet to fill that role. Even though Bloomberg says he isn't planning to run, his supporters point out that he hasn't ruled it out. He has been talking with prominent political veterans, including former Sens. David Boren of Oklahoma and Sam Nunn of Georgia, both Democrats, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, about ways to break the deadlock in Washington and move beyond partisan rancor. This has again fueled speculation about a Bloomberg candidacy. And he could be formidable. A billionaire, he could self-finance his campaign as a pragmatic progressive with a solid record of accomplishment in New York.
But the odds are daunting. The strongest independent or third-party candidate in recent years was Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire who rode a wave of dissatisfaction with the status quo to 19 percent of the vote in 1992. Yet Perot failed to win a single state or electoral vote—showing just how difficult it is for an outsider to capture the White House even when the desire for change is powerful and pervasive.
With Liz Halloran in Iowa