News analysis: Huckabee's 'likability' gave him the edge over Romney

Published: Saturday, Jan. 5 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney's faith wasn't solely to blame for his second-place finish behind Mike Huckabee in Thursday's Iowa Caucus. But religion certainly played a role.

Exit polls showed an unusually high number of evangelical Christians — some 60 percent — voted in the caucus. But their support of Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, shouldn't be construed as a vote against Romney, experts said. Voters just liked Mike.

Huckabee's training as a minister, and before that as a DJ, helped him connect with people, said Republican consultant David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision. His ability to play bass guitar probably didn't hurt either.

"What helped him (Huckabee) more than anything was his personality," Johnson said. "It comes down to likability in many ways."

Johnson said Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, committed enormous amounts of time campaigning in Iowa and spent an estimated $12,000 per vote received in the Republican caucus. But, Johnson said, money can't buy personality or votes. The Romney campaign says it does not have state-specific information on money spent.

"No one knows who is the real Mitt Romney," said Johnson, who worked on Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign. "People just did not warm up to him. He seemed too programmed and not too sincere. Voters just don't feel comfortable with him."

His Mormon background shouldn't be discounted as a factor for the finish, said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, but he said Huckabee was helped by not having changed his position on key conservative issues such as abortion.

"You can't just say, 'Well those crazy Christians turned out again,"' Woodard said. "You have to look at his positions. He can really fire up a crowd, Huckabee. He really speaks the language down here."

Romney has been painted as a business mastermind who can fix problems, such as his turnaround of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Charles W. Dunn, dean of Regent University's School of Government, who has met Romney on several occasions, said he may be the brightest of the Republican candidates — he is the formal, Harvard-educated candidate vs. the approachable Huckabee. Romney raised the money, made the speech on his faith and visited with voters in Iowa, but it just didn't sell.

"He couldn't close the deal," Dunn said of Romney, adding that beyond the evangelical vote, Huckabee also appeals to the NASCAR voters and people who listen to country music, where Romney is the multimillionaire from Boston.

But as attention shifts to next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, Romney's Boston base may help him. He is more well-known in New Hampshire after having served as governor in neighboring Massachusetts. Also, New Hampshire voters are not as focused on religion and are tougher, Dunn said.

Although Romney's campaign has been careful not to call any state a must-win, it's clear he now needs a strong showing in New Hampshire to stay in the race. Whether a second-place finish is good enough, however, remains to be seen.

Romney not only has to beat current Granite State front-runner Sen. John McCain — who finished fourth in Iowa several hundred votes behind behind Fred Thompson — he also now has to battle Huckabee's momentum from the Iowa Caucus win. McCain has already proved his popularity with New Hampshire voters, beating President Bush there in 2000.

Romney and the other Republicans are gearing up for another debate in New Hampshire tonight. Johnson said Romney needs to avoid "being mean-spirited" toward the other candidates and instead explain his vision for the future to help make a comeback.

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