For those of you who missed last night’s YouTube/CNN Republican presidential candidate debate, you didn’t miss a whole lot, other than a predictable escalation of hostilities among Guiliani, Romney and Huckabee, and a few outbreaks of the humma-hummas that rival any stumbling and mumbling among the Democratic candidates on immigration. Huckabee seemed to do himself the most good, and that leads to the really important (if objectively superficial) development in the GOP race, nicely expressed by John McIntyre at RealClearPolitics:
What we have developing is Huckabee stepping in and filling the void in the GOP field that was available to Thompson in the summer – a void that his inept campaign has been unable to fill. So perhaps instead of the Tennessean sinking the Romney campaign it could very well be the Arkansan.
For the Romney campaign the silver lining in Huckabee’s move into the first tier — and it is not an unimportant silver lining — is that Huckabee has totally shaken up the expectations for Iowa on the GOP side. Because of this resetting of expectations in December, if Romney is able to hold off Huckabee in Iowa it will be a huge win for his campaign. A win that would allow the Romney campaign to get the kind of momentum they were looking for when they originally laid out their sling-shot strategy to the nomination. (Win Iowa, win New Hampshire, win Michigan, make it a two-person race against Giuliani, combine the early wins with Romney’s personal wealth to overwhelm Rudy).
I think McIntyre’s got his finger on how the Media Herd is likely to change the expectations game going into the Iowa Caucuses. With Huckabee getting all the buzz these days, Romney, despite his large early lead, his win in the State Republican Straw Poll, his substantial field operation, and his expenditure of a gazillion dollars, is now rapidly becoming the underdog in Iowa. Meanwhile, Huckabee, whose spending in Iowa is pretty much limited to the spare change Romney could find under the seat cushions of his campaign bus, is moving into a position where a second-place finish, which would have been deemed miraculous not long ago, could “finish” him as a realistic candidate for the nomination.
Hardly seems fair, but that’s how the game is played at present.