29 December 2007

Peaking at the right time?

One man is urbane, soft-spoken in personal conversation yet impassioned in front of a crowd. He is African-American - his father having been born in Kenya - and would likely come up slightly left-of-center on the U.S. political continuum.

The other man is a country-boy preacher from Arkansas who has ridden a winning persona and conservative social values to a 10-year stint in the Arkansas governor’s mansion and, now, into the driver’s seat in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

While quite different in background and ideology, Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican Mike Huckabee have one thing in common – they have each played an impressive game of catch-up in the race for their parties’ presidential nod.

They are also poised to pounce with primaries upon us.

Obama remains roughly 20 percentage points behind Sen. Hillary Clinton nationally. However, primaries are not national and the Illinois senator has made steady gains in the early-voting states, putting himself in position to win the important battle for early momentum.

In Iowa – the first state that will weigh in with its caucus on Jan. 3 – Clinton held a small but steady lead in October over both Obama and John Edwards. By mid-December, both challengers had caught up to Clinton. The latest poll, a Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll released on Dec. 28, shows the three in a statistical dead heat.

The same poll shows Obama - down by 19 points in September - has taken a small lead over Clinton in New Hampshire, 32 percent to 30 percent. New Hampshire holds the first primary on Jan. 8.

While Obama pretty much walks the Democratic Party line on most issues – he is pro-abortion, against the Bush tax cuts and for some form universal health care – he has distinguished himself on foreign policy. He boasts of his opposition to the war in Iraq from the beginning and has pledged to bring all U.S combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months, leaving behind only those guarding the U.S. embassy or involved in counterterrorism.

“If Al Qaeda in Iraq is reforming bases there, we should have the capacity to strike them,” Obama said recently in an hour-long interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But that would be it.”

On the stump, Obama has been critical of Clinton’s Iraq strategy, which calls for a redeployment of troops to guard Iraq’s borders and limit Iran’s influence on Iraq.

At the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic fundraising dinner in Des Moines in November, Obama told the crowd he’s “sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking, acting and voting like George Bush Republicans.” Pundits have interpreted the comment as a swipe at Clinton and the Democratic Congress, which has failed in several attempts to tie troop withdrawal to funding for Iraq.

Obama has also said he would not hesitate to go into Pakistan to find the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden and, unlike Clinton, is in favor of opening a dialogue with Iran about its nuclear plans.

Obama has not made much use of the race card but has seen his support among black voters rise in some key races. The Jan. 26 primary in South Carolina is the first in which the black vote will have a major impact. A Rasmussen poll taken in early December showed Obama with a 51-percent to 27-percent lead among black voters in the state. Just a month earlier a Rasmussen poll showed the two candidates dead even among black voters. An ABC News-Washington Post poll in mid-December showed Clinton still carried a 12-point lead over Obama among blacks nationwide.

Unlike Obama’s steady rise, Mike Huckabee’s has been meteoric. In Iowa, he has stormed ahead of all comers, putting as much as eight points between himself and Mitt Romney in a mid-December CNN poll. About a month earlier, Huckabee had trailed Romney by 16 points in a Zogby Iowa poll. Hucakbee is well behind a resurgent John McCain and Romney in New Hampshire, but is even with Romney in Michigan - a state where Romeny’s father George was a popular governor in the 1960s. Huckabee has a solid lead in South Carolina, which votes Jan. 26.

Huckabee’s red-meat issues are those most dear to the evangelical Christian branch of the GOP. He is in favor of a constitutional amendment banning abortion, as well as one banning gay marriage.

“My faith is my life. It defines me,” Huckabee tells supporters in a recorded message on his campaign Web site. “I see no separation of my faith from my personal and professional lives.”

It’s that kind of stubborn devotion to faith that has made Huckabee the darling of many on the religious right, but has given others reason for concern. The former Baptist preacher has come under criticism for the unusually large number of clemencies he granted as governor of Arkansas, with critics attributing the actions to Huckabee’s ties to other preachers.

The former Arkansas governor has also been on the hot seat for a comment in a recent New York Times Magazine article in which he questioned whether Mormons believe Jesus Christ and Satan are brothers. Huckabee apologized publicly to Romney, a Mormon, saying: “I don’t think his being a Mormon or not being a Mormon has a thing to do about being president. I don’t think anybody ought to vote for or against anybody because of their faith.”

Fiscal conservatives are suspicious of Huckbee because of his expansion of health insurance for the children of Arkansas’ working poor and his support for a fuel-tax boost to pay for road repairs in the state.

Though the first votes will be cast in just a few days, both Obama and Huckabee could face last-minute challenges from unexpected twists.

If voters turn their focus to world events with the recent assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Obama could lose some support. The same late-December Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll that showed Obama gaining in the early voting states also shows that Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire consider Clinton far more qualified than Obama on national security issues.

As for Huckabee, in addition to possible damage from stepped up scrutiny in recent weeks, an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll done in the final week of December shows his rising numbers may not be solid.

Four in 10 Iowa Republicans polled say they know too little about the candidate to offer an impression of him. The same number of GOP voters said they have changed their support at least once in the past month. Nearly two-thirds said they may change their minds again in Iowa, a state Huckabee is counting on to get him to South Carolina and then on to Tsunami Tuesday in the first week of February.

All polls referenced in this post, except thos linked directly to it, can be found at Real Clear Politics.

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