The Republican presidential candidates will joust tonight in the CNN/YouTube debate, and it will be instructive to see whether Mike Huckabee - whose Iowa surge is arguably the biggest GOP story in recent weeks - gets treated as a serious candidate for the first time. Put simply, if some of his rivals start attacking him, we'll know he is being taken seriously. In politics today, there's no greater compliment than getting whacked around.
If Mitt Romney (number one in Iowa, but under threat from Huckabee in the polls) or Fred Thompson (languishing as usual, but needing to halt Huckabee's rise among Christian conservative voters before the primaries head to the South) suddenly goes after the ex-governor's record in Arkansas, and tries to paint him as a phony conservative, we'll know that the Huck is now deemed to be first-tier material.
If they point out that the ordained Baptist pastor was officially rebuked five times for ethics violations during his 14-year gubernatorial stint, he should probably feel flattered. Likewise, if they note that the Arkansas tax burden increased by 47 percent, partly due to higher levies on cigarettes and gasoline, during his reign. Likewise, if they spotlight his past support for providing educational opportunies to the children of illegal immigrants. Likewise, if they talk about how he had helped to free a convicted Arkansas rapist, who then proceeded to murder a woman in Missouri. Likewise, if they bring up some of his past verbal gaffes, like the time he discussed his 100-pound weight loss with Don Imus and joked about how he'd been on a "concentration camp" diet.
Even the Prince of Darkness has now weighed in against Huckabee. But the media-savvy Huckabee will probably manage to deflect most debate attacks, having long dealt with them on his home turf.
What most interests me is why this guy is surging in Iowa - and gaining ground nationally - in the first place. One reason: a lot of social and religious conservatives have latched onto Huckabee as one of their own (a theme he's stressing in a new TV ad, which flashes the phrase "Christian leader" on the screen, thereby also reminding viewers that the Huck is not a Mormon). And, by gravitating toward the candidate whom they judge to be the most morally pure, they're also hoping to demonstrate that they still have clout within the GOP.
But there's another reason, as suggested last night by Ken Duberstein, the former chief of staff to President Reagan. (Duberstein was in Philadelphia to talk politics, on a panel sponsored by Franklin & Marshall College, a panel comprised of prominent F & M alums, such as Duberstein.) Huckabee is basically filling a vacuum; he is the beneficiary of a flawed Republican field. Duberstein, now a Washington lobbyist, described the GOP race as "absolute chaos," thanks to the flaws of the principle candidates.
On Romney: "He's the multiple-choice candidate - if you don't like what he chooses today, wait 'til tomorrow."
On Thompson: "He comes from a long line of unsuccessful Tennessee presidential candidates - Howard Baker, Bill Frist, Lamar Alexander, and Al Gore."
On John McCain: "He had so many self-inflicted wounds during the first year of his ('08) run, that he might not be able to recover."
On Rudy Giuliani (and this was the line of the night): "Everybody knows how they feel about Rudy - you either love him, or he hates you."
But, as far as the Iowa race goes, Rudy hearts Huckabee. He needs Huckabee to finish strong in the caucus on Jan. 3, and deny Romney any momentum on the way to the New Hampshire primary five days later. So tonight, Rudy will flatter the Huck by staying mum about flaws in the Arkansas record. And besides, how could Rudy slam a rival for ethics violations, given his longtime coddling of mob-connected buddy Bernie Kerik?
On the Democratic side, perhaps the breathless question of the moment is whether Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Barack Obama will prompt black primary voters (notably in early primary states like South Carolina and Florida) to overlook their loyalty to the Clintons and embrace Hillary's chief rival. But I am dubious that celebrities matter. To cite just one example: Bruce Springsteen, working-class hero, drew huge crowds for John Kerry in the autumn of 2004, yet we all know how that race turned out; in fact, according to the exit polls, President Bush and Kerry split, virtually 50-50, the votes of people who earn between $30,000 and $50,000.
On the F&M panel last night, former congressman William Gray - at one time, the number-three Democrat in the House - was also skeptical about Oprah. Gray, who is African-American, said: "Celebrities can only do two things for you - raise money, and increase your visibility in a media market...People may like her as a TV host, they may like her magazine, but I think she will be shocked" by her lack of clout at the ballot box. "All these celebrities get surprised. Voters don't simply say, 'If some movie star walks in, I'm going to vote for this candidate.'"
Indeed, on the issue of star power, maybe Bill Clinton isn't going to be much help for Hillary, either. Another F&M panelist, Washington lawyer Stanley Brand (a former House Democratic counsel who has defended a slew of Democratic clients) spelled out the problem last night:
"There's a tactical problem for her. She can't simply say, 'I stand tall as a woman,' then bring him in and campaign under his banner. She can't have it both ways...She can't bring her husband in as a savior, as if she's tied to the tracks in a silent movie," because that sends "exactly the wrong message' - the message that she's not the pioneering strong woman she paints herself to be.
And as for Oprah, it's important to note that Obama was gaining ground in Iowa anyway. Those Iowa Democrats who remain wary of Hillary - a growing constituency, according to the polls - didn't need to have their concerns validated by a celebrity.
Anyway, it'll probably all be over by the time the big states vote on Feb. 5 - earlier than ever. As the panelists noted ruefully last night, there's a strong possibility that the two presumptive nominees will then have nine long months to wander the land. Duberstein wondered, "What are these people going to do?"
Pour tar on each other's heads and reduce voters to a state of mental torpor? That's my guess.