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In the back of the GOP pack

The Nation

The lesser-known presidential contenders hope a conservative message will trump money and fame.

April 02, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

TREYNOR, IOWA — It was plain to see one recent morning why Mike Huckabee would bemoan the primacy of fame and money in presidential politics: Not a single TV crew trekked to the Pottawattamie County veterans hall where the Republican White House contender was making his pitch to a roomful of Iowans eating doughnuts and sipping coffee from foam cups.

"If money and celebrity are the criteria to elect a president, then we can elect Paris Hilton," the former Arkansas governor wisecracked as a thunderstorm drenched the region's hog farms.

One-liners aside, a dearth of money and fame poses huge obstacles for Huckabee and others struggling to break into the top tier of Republicans running for president.

In early polls, the second-tier candidates trail not just Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, but also two famous Republicans who have not entered the race: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and "Law & Order" actor Fred Thompson, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee.

In Iowa, reminders of their secondary status abound.

Huckabee drew fewer than 100 people to a rural country club where McCain had attracted a crowd four times the size weeks before.

Another Republican contender, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, settled for small restaurant crowds on the same day that a Democratic candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, joined a healthcare forum nationally televised on ABC's "Good Morning America."

But Huckabee, Brownback and others see an opening as the Republican contest takes shape: In varying degrees, Giuliani, McCain and Romney have strayed from ideological purity, leaving many conservatives unenthusiastic about the trio of early front-runners.

So Huckabee, Brownback and others are scrambling to cast themselves as unwavering conservatives.

"I'm over here to the right," Huckabee told the Pottawattamie County crowd after warning that same-sex marriage threatened to undermine civilization. "I'm pro-life. I'm pro-family. I'm pro-2nd Amendment. I can pass the litmus test on all those wonderful things we consider to be conservative."

A couple of mornings later, Brownback struck similar notes in a give-and-take with Republican activists at the Wig and Pen tavern in Iowa City.

"We've got to stop driving God out of the public square," Brownback said, criticizing the American Civil Liberties Union for court cases against Nativity scenes on government land.

Advisors to Huckabee and Brownback hope such appeals will resonate with the culturally conservative voters who dominate Republican politics in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the first states to hold 2008 nominating contests.

"The whole concept here is that you don't have, on the Republican side, a candidate who truly represents conservative values in the top tier," said Dick Dresner, a Huckabee strategist and pollster. "You often do, but not this time."

Victories in early-voting states, the theory goes, would produce a surge of money and momentum for Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister known for shedding 110 pounds on a diet, or Brownback, one of the religious right's strongest allies in Congress.

Rich Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman, sees the small-arena politics of the Iowa caucuses -- tentatively scheduled for Jan. 14 -- as favorable to Huckabee and Brownback.

"While at times it appears to be mission impossible, nothing's impossible," said Bond, a McCain supporter.

At the same time, however, the national landscape may be bleak for lesser-known candidates, thanks partly to the shifting 2008 election calendar. In a dash for relevance in choosing party nominees, more than a dozen states are moving to advance their presidential primaries to Feb. 5, as California has done, or sooner.

The changes could force candidates to compete early in such large and expensive states as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois and Florida -- and that could prove to be too steep a barrier even for a lower-tier candidate who posted a solid showing in the earliest contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

"You can't deny this is a giant mountain," Dresner said.

History suggests long odds. The major parties share a pattern of ultimately snubbing longshots who score early successes, notably McCain in 2000 and Democrat Gary Hart in 1984.

The showcase triumph for a dark horse was Democrat Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer and Georgia governor whose months of toiling in Iowa led to an upset in the state's 1976 caucuses and helped propel him to the White House.

But some Iowans taking a look at Huckabee and Brownback wonder whether the burst of big-state primaries in February has ruined the prospects for a Republican to surge as Carter did, when the pace of primaries was slow enough for him to ramp up a national campaign after his Iowa breakthrough.

"If the California primary was right out of the chute, Carter never would have been president," said Mark Lundberg, chairman of Iowa's Sioux County Republican Party.

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