Key elements of the Republican base are coalescing around Mike Huckabee in Iowa, lifting this comparatively little-known candidate to the first rank in the first state to cast votes in the 2008 presidential contest.
The surge for Huckabee is remarkable in size and intensity alike. He's attracted not just support but enthusiastic support, from core Republican groups including conservatives, evangelicals and strong abortion opponents.
The change is notable, as well, for Huckabee's lack of advantage on most issues and personal attributes. He runs a distant third on experience, leadership and electability, and trails by very large margins on handling terrorism, the economy or the federal budget. But in empathy, honesty and handling contentious social issues, he runs strongly.
Huckabee's support in Iowa has gone from 8 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll in late July to 24 percent now, up threefold. Mitt Romney has 28 percent support, essentially unchanged from 26 percent in July. With sampling error, they're about even.
As with Romney, support for Fred Thompson (at 15 percent), Rudy Giuliani (13 percent) and John McCain (6 percent) is flat. While tied with Thompson given sampling tolerances, Giuliani, the national front-runner, is numerically fourth in Iowa.
For likely voters who are doubtful about Romney, unhappy with Giuliani, wary of McCain and dissatisfied with Thompson, Huckabee has emerged in Iowa as the Republican alternative. Indeed, it appears that his gains come in part from the absence of Sam Brownback and Tommy Thompson, two other alternatives who've left the contest.
In the last national ABC/Post poll, by contrast, Huckabee had 9 percent support, behind Giuliani, McCain and Thompson, and about even with Romney. Iowa is different.
GROUPS – The trend in Iowa among groups is striking. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has soared to 44 percent support among evangelical Protestants, up from 16 percent last summer; he now leads Romney, a Mormon, by 2-1 among evangelicals, who account for nearly four in 10 likely caucus-goers. (Huckabee also leads Romney among all weekly church-goers, albeit by a much closer 8 points.)
Among Iowa Republicans who take the most strongly anti-abortion view, saying it should be illegal in all cases, Huckabee leads Romney by 36-22 percent (they account for a quarter of likely caucus-goers). And among conservatives overall -- three-quarters of likely caucus-goers -- it's about an even match, Huckabee 30 percent, Romney 28.
One other vulnerability for Romney: He leads by 37-14 percent among those who've never attended an Iowa caucus before, but they're a harder group to actually bring out on caucus night. Among previous attenders, the two again are very close -- Huckabee, 29 percent support; Romney, 24 percent.
FIRED UP – And Huckabee supporters are fired up. Fifty percent say they're "very enthusiastic" about supporting him, compared with just 28 percent of Romney's. Similarly, 48 percent of Huckabee supporters are "definitely" for him; that applies to just 29 percent of Romney's. Indeed, 42 percent of Romney's supporters say there's a "good chance" they may change their minds; among Huckabee's, that falls to 26 percent.