Debate analysis: Advantage Huckabee

When my sister-in-law’s hard-core Democrat husband announces that Mike Huckabee is getting his vote for president, it’s time to take the former Arkansas governor seriously.

Rich voted for Kerry, Gore, and Clinton twice over the last 16 years. This time around, he’s got no use for any of the Democratic candidates. He’s from Tennessee, and like many old southern Democrats, he’s far more conservative than today’s national Democratic Party. Hillary, Edwards, and Obama have nothing to offer someone like Rich.

Enter Huckabee. His performance at the Republican YouTube debate the other night sealed the deal for Rich, and got me to thinking that Huckabee may have more appeal to undecided voters than the professional pundits expect.

The debate Tuesday night was a clear win for Mike Huckabee. Romney and Giuliani scored hits on one another, and somehow they both managed to come across as oily and dodgy. The only firm position Romney expressed was his opposition to abortion. (well, that and his assertion that it wasn’t his fault that illegals were employed at the governor’s mansion in Massachusetts.) The story that broke just before the debate about Giuliani’s use of New York police security to cover his extramarital visits to Judith Nathan won’t endear him to Republican core conservatives already turned off by his multiple marriages. Fred Thompson turned in another lackluster performance and appears to be going through the motions (why did his campaign choose to provide CNN a video in which Thompson didn’t even appear?).

John McCain did well and may have established himself as the top choice with voters for whom national security is the number one priority. Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo were strong on the immigration questions, and Ron Paul presented his case for getting out of Iraq better than he has in any previous debate. The exchanges between McCain and Paul were the liveliest of the debate.

However, Mike Huckabee stood head and shoulders above the rest of the field. He has yet to respond to a question in any interview I’ve seen with anything less than clarity, poise, and an unapologetic moral center. Again and again, even on questions intended to make him look foolish (i.e., the one from the guy who held the Bible up to the camera and sneered, “Do you believe this book?”), Huckabee was calm and well-spoken, and very impressive even to those who would normally disagree with his positions.

When lifelong Democrats admit that they’d rather see him in the Oval Office than any of their party’s candidates, it’s time to take notice. Mike Huckabee may just pull this off.

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