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Republicans Stunned by Penniless Wisecracking Two-bit Preacher

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Mike Huckabee's not-so-improbable rise has stunned the Republican establishment and has his rivals exhibiting completely aberrant behavior: Mitt Romney is teary-eyed, Rudy Giuliani subdued, and Fred Thompson snarky.

It is highly satisfying that the cause of this vexation is a Southern Christian conservative of the kind that the party has counted on for votes for decades. Republican leaders just didn't want one to actually run for president, and certainly not to win. George W. Bush was perfect for them: a veneer of Texas born-again evangelist ignorance covering a perfect Republican aristocracy that would ensure some level of loyalty.

Huckabee has risen from nothing in a few weeks to comfortably lead in Iowa and South Carolina. Perhaps more amazingly, he has risen nearly as fast in less primary-aware and Christian-fundamentalist-friendly states like Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin. One survey this week has him in a statistical tie with Giuliani in California, a presumed bastion of Republican social moderation.

This has caused Huckabee's opponents to crumble, not just in the polls, but in nearly all aspects of their campaigns, as their strategies are in pieces just days before Christmas and the Iowa caucuses. In recent interviews, Romney has appeared so resigned to an Iowa loss that he actually seems genuine, unlike the Clintons and their absurd expectation-lowering game in that state. Of course, the 20 point negative swing Romney has been subjected to in Iowa (from plus 10 percent to minus 10 percent against Huckabee) would be enough to send anyone into shock. Even Romney's ads blasting Huckabee for excessive paroling while Governor of Arkansas and for leniency towards illegal immigrants is actually just as much about making Romney look more like Huckabee ("both good family men, both pro-life, both [against gay marriage], etc") as about pointing out Huckabee's faults. Any alert voter (and they all are in Iowa) will no doubt be reminded that Romney's conversion to these conservative social positions is extremely recent.

As for Giuliani, the Huckabee shocker came at nearly exactly the same time that America's Mayor was unmasked as the corrupt adulterer that he is. Unable to cope with this, he retreated to the warmer pastures of Florida to give a somewhat softened version of his stump speech, only to be greeted with the news that there too, Huckabee is in the lead (and Romney second). For months, Giuliani had a double-digit lead over his rivals in Florida. To give some perspective on the Giuliani flame-out, his current downcast behavior is reminiscent of the dejection he displayed when he dropped out of the Senate race against Hillary Clinton in 2000 after tough poll numbers, a messy separation and a prostate cancer diagnosis.

Giuliani should be dejected: few Republican politicians, let alone one running for President, have found a way to hit all GOP voters' buttons in such a fell swoop, managing to earn the joint disgust of evangelical, law-and-order, fiscally conservative, libertarian and moderate (at least women) voters, all because of a story about public subsidies for an affair eight years ago. As a consequence, he doesn't stand a chance in Iowa and South Carolina, where fundamentalists will be looking for a Christian family man and, given the choice between a Mormon and an adulterer, would pick a Mormon (but of course they don't have to pick: they now have Huckabee). He's also done for in New Hampshire despite the state's more relaxed attitude on social issues and private behavior: the state's libertarianism extends to taxation (one of the lowest in the country) and its residents don't look kindly upon spending taxpayers' money on mistresses. And so Giuliani is left to fend in an ever-shrinking territory (next stop Wyoming county conventions?).

One could argue that Thompson gave up a long time ago, or that he never even started, but he did save his last breath of political life to go after Huckabee in Iowa ("talks like a Republican but taxes like a Democrat"). Thompson can't seriously hope to affect the race in Iowa by going negative after months of excruciating passivity, but something finally got under his skin: a fellow cash-poor Southern conservative, and one who is peaking at the right time (ie, not five months before the first contest), and is charismatic and hard-working. Even by Thompson standards, his answers to a recent AP questionnaire submitted to all candidates showed a complete disregard for what primary Republican voters may think: on the question of his most-prized possession, his answer, "trophy wife," would go over incredibly well with a bunch of hedge-fund guys popping DP on their way to St. Barts. Thompson must know average GOP voters would feel differently (they love Huckabee, whose jokes are along the lines of: "[The tax code], if we can't fix it with duct tape and WD-40, it can't be fixed"). Huckabee was clearly the last straw on Thompson's particularly weak back, and now we know for sure he is no longer running.

The only resilience shown on the GOP side to Huckabee's surge is by John McCain, whose poll numbers are slowly rising, who's getting the right endorsements for a Republican (ie Joe Lieberman) and who keeps on going, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. I'm not sure if this says more about McCain and his fortitude, or about the sorry state of the rest of a GOP field that doesn't have the grit, or the message, to face a challenge from a penniless, wise-cracking, two-bit former preacher.