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.
Looking at it another way, among likely caucus-goers who are "very enthusiastic" about their choice, Huckabee leads Romney by 37-25 percent. Among those who say they've definitely made up their minds, 34 percent support Huckabee, 24 percent Romney. That makes for a better turnout profile for Huckabee.
ENGAGEMENT – While Huckabee's supporters are far more excited, Iowa Republicans overall are much less enthused or engaged than their Democratic counterparts, and much more movable. Overall, a hefty 59 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say they might change their minds, compared with 43 percent on the Democratic side. Indeed, 34 percent of Republicans say there's a good chance of it (compared with 20 percent of Democrats). The Republican race still has exceptional room to move between now and Jan. 3.
Compared to Democrats, fewer Republicans plan to attend a caucus, and among those who say they will go, fewer are certain about it. And overall 34 percent of Republican likely caucus-goers are "very enthusiastic" about their choice, compared with 49 percent of Democrats.
Other results also show how the Republican race in Iowa is a fairly low-wattage affair compared to the Democratic contest there. Likely Republican caucus-goers are far less likely than their Democratic counterparts to say they've attended a campaign event (29 percent on the Republican side vs. 52 percent on the Democratic), to have gotten a call from one or more campaigns (58 percent vs. 80 percent) or to have met a candidate (19 percent vs. 33 percent).
ISSUES/ATTRIBUTES – What makes Huckabee's standing all the more fascinating is that, as noted, he does not score well on some of the most prominent issues (such as handling terrorism, the economy, the budget or immigration) or personal attributes (such as electability, experience and strong leadership).
Terrorism is a clear Giuliani advantage, despite his low support overall. Romney leads easily in trust to handle the economy, the deficit and immigration. (There's quite a bit of division among Iowa Republicans on the top issue in their vote; 14 percent cite terrorism, 13 percent immigration, 10 percent Iraq, 10 percent abortion, 9 percent the economy, 8 percent health care and 7 percent moral or family values.)
On the personal attributes of electability and leadership, it's a Romney-Giuliani contest, not a Romney-Huckabee contest. Indeed, even among his own supporters in Iowa, just 42 percent believe Huckabee has the best chance to win the presidential election in November. Huckabee instead runs competitively with Romney on two of six attributes tested in this poll: being the most honest and trustworthy candidate (a weakness for Giuliani here and nationally as well), and empathy; and on just one of six issues -- "social issues such as abortion and gay civil unions."
According to the Washington Post's Campaign Tracker, Romney's held 129 campaign events in Iowa this year, compared with 90 by Huckabee and fewer by the others. Perhaps the sourest pill for Romney is to be challenged by Huckabee in Iowa despite this result: A vast 63 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say it's Romney who's campaigned hardest in the state. A mere 8 percent say it's Huckabee.
SAMPLING and TURNOUT – This poll was conducted by telephone calls to a random sample of Iowa homes with landline phone service. Adults identified as likely Republican caucus-goers account for 8 percent of respondents. That compares to GOP caucus turnout of 5 percent of the voting-age population in 1988 and 1996, and 4 percent in 2000.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Nov. 14-18, 2007, among a random sample of 400 Iowan adults likely to vote in the 2008 Republican presidential caucus. The results have a 5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.