Huffpost Politics
Thomas B. Edsall Headshot

New Hampshire Will Be Key Battle In GOP Civil War

Posted: Updated:

Manchester, N.H. -- As the pared-down field of presidential candidates returns to battle today in preparation for next Tuesday's primary, the GOP faces the prospect of two struggles: one, an intra-party conflict to determine who is going to be the Wall Street/national defense establishment candidate; and, two, a civil war in which the winner of the first conflict takes on Mike Huckabee, the Iowa victor who is leading a right-populist/evangelical insurgency.

The initial GOP contest is to determine whether John McCain, leader of the national defense wing, will defeat Mitt Romney, who now carries the mantle of anti-tax, economic conservatives, to become the overall choice of the party's mainstream - or whether Rudy Giuliani will stage an improbable comeback.

Whoever takes the New Hampshire Republican contest on January 8 will face what is likely to be a far more divisive challenge from Huckabee in the next round of primary and caucus states. This fight threatens to fracture the Republican party - recalling the schism engendered by the 1964 Rockefeller-Goldwater battle.

* * *

Across the aisle, the struggle within the Democratic coalition pits two candidates and their staffs squarely against a third, each one representing competing bases of the party.

Barack Obama has mobilized a powerful coalition -- the core of which is made up of young, well-educated voters enraged by the war in Iraq -- to win against Hillary Clinton's supporters, concentrated among women, those over 65, the less affluent (she won among $15-$30,000 income voters), and those seeking an experienced candidate. [See caucus breakdowns here.

John Edwards, in turn, has mobilized the not-insignificant constituency of voters viscerally angered by job-cutbacks, declining wages, and corporate high-handedness.

The new Democratic front-runner, Obama, has the current advantage of pulling in independent voters crucial not only to the primary contest here, but to the general election next November.

Obama faces the prospect of severe and hostile vetting from his primary opponents, however. Upon her arrival in New Hampshire this morning, Hillary Clinton signaled that she intends to play on Obama's as yet unexploited political weaknesses: "Who will be able to stand up to the Republican attack machine?" she asked at an appearance in Nashua.

Hillary's aides point to Obama's extremely progressive record as a community organizer, state senator and candidate for Congress, his alliances with "left-wing" intellectuals in Chicago's Hyde Park community, and his liberal voting record on criminal defendants' rights as subjects for examination.

Along the same lines, ABC reported that Clinton aides gave the network various examples, of Obama's controversial stands. The aides cited Obama's past assertion that he would support ending mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes, pointing to a 2004 statement at an NAACP-sponsored debate: "Mandatory minimums take too much discretion away from judges."

Edwards' staff also immediately began to take shots at Obama: Appearing on MSNBC this morning, Edwards' manager David Bonior described Obama as a sellout to corporate America: "Barack Obama's kind of change is where you sit down and you cut a deal with the corporate world."

For his part, Obama told reporters on his 7 am flight from Iowa to New Hampshire that he has no intention of changing strategy: "It's not broken. Why fix it?"

* * *

On the Republican side, the immediate consequence of Huckabee's crushing nine-point defeat of Romney in Iowa has been to give a major boost in New Hampshire to John McCain, the "maverick" libertarian-authoritarian who has been vying for the lead among voters in this state. For many in the establishment-wing of the GOP, Romney's failure to win Iowa after spending record sums there - a loss stemming in part from voter perception that he is a moderate running in conservative wolves' clothing -- means that McCain is now very likely to become the banner carrier for the party's mainstream.

McCain's rise is an uncomfortable development for social-values voters; for those opposed to immigration; for those critical of McCain's support for campaign finance reform; and for those disturbed by his votes against Bush's tax cuts.

In the longer term, however, McCain's difficulties with these factions are minor compared to the dangers posed by Huckabee's explicitly populist challenge to the authority of the Republican Party's power brokers.

Huckabee has demonstrated a willingness to defy party leaders, whom he dismissed as a "wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street," a statement that goes beyond heresy to apostasy. Moreover, he has used that message to turn what had been a loyal Republican constituency -- white evangelicals -- into a rebel force.

Since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, the GOP has successfully avoided the divisive internal conflict that debilitated the Democrats through much of the past four decades, subordinating the inherent tensions between values-oriented Christian voters, segregationists, sexual traditionalists, those opposed to womens' rights, and market-oriented pro-business Republicans under a common goal of opposing intrusion by the federal government.

The Huckabee candidacy has the potential to tear the strained "big tent" asunder.

* * *

The GOP establishment -- Republicans who run the party apparatus - now faces a dilemma. The ideal outcome for this interest group would be to have the contest turn into a battle between Romney and McCain, with Huckabee slowly pushed aside.

The problem is that if the support of party regulars remains split between McCain and Romney, Huckabee's bid remains credible, and likely to be significantly enhanced in the latter half of January when the primary struggle heads away from the North to South Carolina and Florida, two states that Huckabee could win.

The challenge Huckabee represents is reflected in his fights with the GOP's leading anti-tax organization, the Club for Growth, which the former Arkansas Governor has dismissed as the "Club for Greed."

If the Republican presidential nomination turns into a McCain versus Huckabee contest, the Club for Growth would face the repugnant reality of having to choose between Huckabee, whom the Club calls "a habitual tax hiker," and McCain, whose "overall record is tainted by a marked antipathy towards the free market and individual freedom," according to the Club.

New Hampshire, by all accounts, will be one of Huckabee's weakest states, with a relatively small fundamentalist-evangelical community. The states that follow New Hampshire - Michigan, South Carolina and Florida - are far more attractive for his Christian-based candidacy, especially insofar as his religiosity is compatible with the positions of mainstream and even left-liberal denominations.

Michigan will be hard for Huckabee to win, but in 1988, televangelist Marion (Pat) Robertson scored second in the state's caucus, and the Christian right is very active in the state. Huckabee has already shown strength in Florida and South Carolina polls.

"We only have a few days to close the sale, but I think the momentum coming out of Iowa is going to be good for us," Huckabee told reporters this morning. "Then we're on to South Carolina and Florida where we're running first in the polls. We're going to have a great month."

Huckabee now faces the prospect of a much more exhaustive examination of his own eccentricities and vulnerabilities. He is the author of an unusual collection of books including "Digging Your Grave With A Knife And Fork" and a contributor to "Living Beyond Your Lifetime;" by his own account, Huckabee has struggled with obesity all his adult life, and is arguably obsessed with dieting; although he is an ordained Baptist preacher, and a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, he spent only a year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas, dropping out before completing his degree; and while Governor of Arkansas, he faced numerous allegations of ethics violations.

An extended fight pitting Huckabee against another leading Republican candidate would very likely leave GOP with scars difficult to heal by November 2008.