Huckabee's Next Pivot


Two weeks ago, I advised Mike Huckabee to pivot away from the pitfalls of Christian identity politics and toward a more ecumenical populism if he wanted to be a player in the race past Iowa. I think I detected some pivoting along those lines going on in the run-up to the Caucuses, but now that he's beaten Mitt Romney (and yes, I've experienced a fair amount of Huckenfreude tonight) and established himself as more than just a flash in the pan, he needs to pivot further still, and start acting less like an underdog bent on tearing down his own party's establishment and more like a plausible GOP nominee. This was a trick that John McCain, the last Republican insurgent, didn't manage to pull off in '00, and it cost him the nomination; for Huckabee, who's gone further down the path to heresy and incurred more animosity than McCain ever did, it'll be harder still. But he ought to try: Now is the time for his campaign to talk less about the death of the Reagan coalition (I enjoy Ed Rollins, but God the man talks too much) and more about how Mike Huckabee is really a lot more conservative than most conservatives have been led to believe. Make nice, build bridges, find a way to go on Rush Limbaugh's show as well as Leno's, etc. It's probably too late for this kind of pivoting to have the desired effect: The conservative establishment's loathing for Huck is awfully potent at this point, and like McCain before him the Arkansas governor seems to have fallen too much in love with his David-vs.-Goliath narrative. But if he wants to from being a good story to something more serious, he needs to at least make the attempt.

An interesting question, while I'm on the subject, is what Huckabee should hope and aim for in New Hampshire and Michigan - assuming that South Carolina, where at the moment he's leading in the polls, is the next do-or-die for him. He's positioned well enough in Michigan to hope for a strong showing there, but he needs to exceed expectations in New Hampshire, I think, or risk losing his momentum - which means, assuming McCain continues his move to the poll position, beating Giuliani and rising high enough to make Romney feel the heat. Right now, he's running even with Rudy at around ten percent, 15-20 points back of Romney and McCain. A lot will hinge on whether he gets a bounce from Iowa, and whether Mitt takes a hit. If that's how it plays out, Huck's goal should be to get within five points of Romney when the dust settles, spin it as a huge triumph (which it would be), and then gun for outright victory in Michigan and an easy win against a still-divided field in South Carolina.

Is that scenario likely? Not really, no - but then this scenario didn't seem terribly likely either, once upon a time.

Photo by Flickr user Joe Crimmings used under a Creative Commons license.