Huckabee Up, Hillary Down

The week ahead in presidential politics will see Mike Huckabee try to sustain his surge against Republican rivals and the media, Hillary Clinton try to arrest her precipitous slide in the early states, Barack Obama try to capitalize on his spectacular tour with Oprah Winfrey, Fred Thompson try to get back in the race in Iowa, and another Republican debate, this time in Des Moines.

Thompson, after tantalizing the political world for much of the year, has mostly fallen out of the top tier in the early state contests. That includes his losing the lead in South Carolina, where he had led, to Huckabee. He's fighting it out with Rudy Giuliani for a distant third in Iowa, where the fight to win is between Huckabee and longtime leader Romney, who's now fallen well off the pace. Thompson will spend most of his time between now and January 3rd in Iowa, hoping to to finish a strong third there to retain relevance going into the other states, and perhaps get some juice for a decent showing in New Hampshire, where he could finish sixth, behind Ron Paul.

The man of the hour for Republicans, of course, is Huckabee. He has big leads in Iowa in two new polls, including an astonishing 22-point edge over Romney in a Newsweek poll. He's surged into the lead in South Carolina and other Southern states, is now essentially tied with Romney for second in Nevada, behind Giuliani, and is moving up in New Hampshire.

Romney still leads there, but his margin over John McCain and Giuliani -- who hopes to hang on through what look to be unpromising results in the early contests to get to bigger states at the end of January and early February -- is diminished. We may find out this week, incidentally, who was behind those controversial Mormon-baiting, anti-Romney phone calls that the former Massachusetts governor's team decried as evidence of foul play.

More on the Republicans in a moment. Now to the Democrats.

Hillary Clinton's leads in the four earliest states - Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina - are all now evaporating. I've previously reported, on New West Notes, on Barack Obama's growing Iowa lead in most of the new polls, his pulling to within single digits of Hillary in New Hampshire, and erasing her lead in South Carolina to a statistical dead heat.

Now there's a set of Mason-Dixon polls for MSNBC confirming the trend in all those states, and extending it now to Nevada. Clinton has long held a big lead in Nevada, but in this new poll, it's down to 34% to 26%. As I've pointed out all along from experience, the Silver State is a place where things can turn on a dime.

The polls do have Hillary on top by a hair in Iowa, by only three points in New Hampshire, the closest ever, and a couple of points in South Carolina. In South Carolina yesterday, Obama's rally with Oprah Winfrey drew over 30,000 people. In Des Moines on Saturday, they drew 19,000.

New Hampshire was always Hillary's firewall against a possible loss in Iowa. But that margin for error is now approaching the vanishing point.

Clinton's attacks on Obama aren't gaining traction, at least now, and she looks out of synch. She put up a snazzy new ad by the former commander of NATO, victor in the Kosovo War. It says great things about her, including that she will avert a war with Iran.

Which begins to get at the problem. The new US National Intelligence Estimate makes it clear there will be no war with Iran in the foreseeable future. In fact, Iran's cooperation will be important in devising a settlement of the security and political situation in Iraq, without which the time-limited military surge she supported and then opposed - alternately outraging, then assuaging, the peacenik left - will have been for naught. But because of the threat of Iran, she voted to declare its military a terrorist organization.

Her message and positioning are out of synch. And even before this became evident, she had big problems. She'd already lost her lead in Iowa to the most heavily-funded insurgent candidate in modern American history. Her attacks on him worked at first with the press, but now aren't working at all. Indeed, they are making her something of a figure of fun, with her overly diligent staff digging up his childhood musings about the presidency, musings shared by millions of American tykes.

Now her lead in national polls, never all that relevant, is sliding. More worrisome, her lead in New Hampshire, her firewall state, is now approaching the vanishing point. That's before anything finally bad happens in Iowa. And her big lead in South Carolina had evaporated, even before Obama's campaigning in that state with the most admired celebrity on the planet, someone with special appeal to women and blacks, two key cores of her electoral support.

Back on the Republican side, while Giuliani will continue to contend with questions about his undisclosed consulting clients, his close associates, and charges that he misused city resources as New York's mayor, all of which have taken a serious toll, Mitt Romney will deal with his declining appeal to Christian social conservatives and then, probably prepare attacks on Huckabee.

Did Mitt Romney deal with his "Mormon problem" in his ballyhooed speech on "Faith In America" late last week? Not really He barely mentioned his own controversial religion, the proximate cause of his speech. Well, actually, the cause of his speech is Huckabee's surge past Romney into the lead in Iowa. Romney has always counted on Iowa dominance to launch his campaign into the stratosphere, and has spent megabucks there to insure it, only to see Huckabee and his relative ragtag band storm past on account of his consistent social conservatism and personable preacher manner. With a lot of help from Chuck Norris.

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith."

No one is asking Romney to be the spokesman for his faith. That's not his problem. His problem is that many, especially in the party whose leadership he seeks, consider Mormonism to be a bogus religion. In fact, the prominence of the speech actually informed a great many people who were not otherwise aware of the candidate's Mormonism, and led the Iowa press to point out the more colorful aspects of a colorful religion.

Huckabee, for his part, has a huge lead in the new Newsweek poll of the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, 39% to 22% over Mitt Romney. The other candidates are way back, at 10% and less.

Huckabee is surviving, and thriving, despite his Kevin Dumond problem -- he's the rapist Huckabee thought had been treated unjustly who later raped and murdered another woman -- and his ignorance of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. Now he has a new revelation to deal with. When he ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1992, he answered an Associated Press questionnaire in which he replied to queries on AIDS by calling for a quarantine of its victims and suggesting that celebrities like Madonna fund AIDS research rather than the federal government. Whoops! It'll be interesting to see how he spins that one.

So far, he is sticking with his opinion, although he says his view today is different based on what we know. Which may help him with his core constituency, one that may be large enough to win quite few primaries and caucuses.

In many ways, the Republican race has become more interesting that the Democratic race. Despite John Edwards' best efforts -- which included putting an internal poll claiming Obama is really third in Iowa and hosting a conference call in which black supporters blasted Oprah (okay, those don't cost as best efforts) -- it's a race between Obama and Clinton. With one big caveat. Edwards is still highly competitive in Iowa. Some believe that he and Obama could knock Hillary into third in the Hawkeye State, which would create an entirely new dynamic.

The Republicans, however, have several candidates who can win. It's a situation in which the longtime national frontrunner, Giuliani, may still be winless in late January. In which someone until recently far back in the pack, Huckabee, is now surging despite spending very little money. In which the biggest spender, Romney, now has to try to win back voters turning away from him in the early states, a situation which makes other candidates -- such as McCain, Giuliani, and Thompson -- think they can pick up new support they wouldn't have a shot at otherwise as Romney and Huckabee go at one another.

It should make for a very merry Christmas season. And yes, I'm being facetious.