Watch Out, Mitt and Hillary! Huckabee and Obama Surge in Iowa

Will the Republicans nominate an authentic and personable social conservative who doesn't believe in evolution but does believe in the greenhouse effect?

Mike Huckabee has certainly taken the lead away from Mitt Romney in Iowa. As for the Democrats, so much for the "inevitable" candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama's moved ahead in Iowa, and she now says she sees "character" flaws in the first black candidate with a real shot at the presidency. What a surprise.

With his longstanding lead in Iowa, where he's already spent megabucks on TV advertising and organizing, having disappeared, Romney will give a major address on his controversial religion, Mormonism, this week at the George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Library in Texas. The speech is called "Faith In America." Romney will be introduced by former President Bush.

Huckabee just finished three days of retail campaigning in New Hampshire, and will be spending the next two days with intensive campaigning in Iowa.

Hillary says she is going to step up her criticism of her Democratic rivals, especially Obama, who she says may have "character issues."

Obama, whose campaign anticipated attacks from the Clinton camp, will spend next weekend barnstorming Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina with Oprah Winfrey.

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee had their showings in other Iowa polls confirmed by the Des Moines Register. They have both taken narrow leads in the first-in-the-nation contest.

It's Obama 28%, Hillary Clinton 25%, John Edwards 22%, Bill Richardson 9% and Joe Biden 6% among Democrats.

On the Republican side, it's Huckabee 29%, Mitt Romney 24%, Rudy Giuliani 13%, Fred Thompson 9%, and John McCain and Ron Paul 7%. Thompson's support has been cut in half since October, while Huckabee's gone up 17 points.

Huckabee is also moving in the other early primary and caucus states in the wake of a strong showing in last week's Republican presidential debate. That was a night for Giuliani and Romney to continue what may be a fateful tango of hostility. And for Huckabee to demonstrate exactly why he is the the candidate of the political surge.

I think Romney and his handlers made a mistake. His biggest problem is Huckabee, who is in the process of hollowing out his candidacy. He's doing that in two ways, by proving to have a powerful appeal as an authentic, not situational, social conservative. And by taking the lead in Iowa, which had been ceded to Romney for months. If Romney loses Iowa, his entire strategic sequence is thoroughly disrupted. He doesn't have the built-in national appeal of Giuliani, which may be the ex-New York mayor's ultimate strength in the big state primaries down the line in the contest. Of course, if he finishes out of the top two in the first few contests, that support could erode quickly.

This poll by Insider Advantage of Republican voters in Iowa and Florida shows a clearcut victory by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in last week's debate in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Huckabee's new eminence in the field is matched by a new effort to show that he's not really a conservative. Though he is in fact the clearest social conservative in the field. Conservative columnist Bob Novak, laying out the case for his economic conservative allies, scores Huckabee for raising some taxes, spending money on social programs, criticizing free trade, and backing a cap & trade program on greenhouse gases.

"Huckabee is campaigning as a conservative, but serious Republicans know that he is a high-tax, protectionist, big-government advocate of a strong hand in the Oval Office directing the lives of Americans. Until now, they did not bother to expose the former governor of Arkansas as a false conservative because he seemed an underfunded, unknown nuisance candidate. Now that he has pulled even with Mitt Romney for the Iowa caucuses with the possibility of more progress, the beleaguered Republican Party has a frightening problem on its hands. The rise of evangelical Christians as the motive force that blasted the GOP out of minority status during the past generation always contained an inherent danger if these new Republican acolytes supported not merely a conventional conservative but one of their own."

In other words, the social conservative vote was fine so long as it went to establishment Republican candidates who didn't really believe in its core issues.

Consultant-turned-commentator Dick Morris, who worked with the former Arkansas governor in the early '90s, defends Huckabee against the charge of being a big tax-and-spender. He notes that total state tax burdens nationwide rose twice as much as in Arkansas, and that the income tax there stood when Huckabee left office exactly where it was when he entered it.

Meanwhile, the Republicans line up for another forum/debate next Sunday night at the University of Miami, sponsored by Spanish language broadcasting giant Univision. Which should make for interesting moments, since Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani, and John McCain -- endorsed yesterday by New Hampshire's influential Manchester Union Leader -- have all departed from the hardest lines on illegal immigration.

While the increasingly fascinating Republican race unfolds, I've come to consider the American Research Group polls as sometime outliers in the presidential race, frequently higher than other polls for Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and for John McCain on the Republican side. Now ARG is showing Barack Obama with a sliver-thin lead in Iowa, and closing in New Hampshire. Hillary is down 10 points among women in Iowa. Though she continues, in this poll, to have a big lead in South Carolina, whereas Clinton and Obama are evenly matched in other polling.

On the Republican side, Huckabee is the man on the move. He's tied for the lead in Iowa with Mitt Romney, up to third in New Hampshire, behind Romney and Giuliani, and close to a three-way statistical dead heat in South Carolina with the other two. Huckabee is up 13 points in South Carolina over the past month, with Fred Thompson sliding to fourth.