GOP Mess in Iowa: Romney Stalls, Giuliani's Flailing, Huckabee Scares the DC Establishment

Clad in an orange and grey hunting jacket and an orange cap, Mike Huckabee raised his 12-gauge shotgun, took aim and fired, bagging a pheasant for the benefit of watching reporters. As another shot flew over their heads, it became too much for one journalist who cried: "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Don't shoot. This is traumatizing." Huckabee the hunter had demonstrated himself a "regular guy," hoping to consolidate his lead in the Republican polls before Thursday's Iowa caucus, the first step to gaining the party's nomination for President.

His nearest rival, Mitt Romney, had shot himself in the foot by claiming to be an avid hunter, only to then confess he targeted mostly "small varmints." No such question marks over Huckabee, who said he not only hunted ducks, deer and antelopes but could eat varmint too. "I figured out you could put grease in a popcorn popper and heat that thing up and you could cook anything," he said of his student days. "So we fried squirrel."

There is growing unease among Republican organizers that the Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan could meet the same fate as Huckabee's squirrel. The presidential campaign has failed to produce a champion to take on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or whoever wins the Democratic nomination. Instead the struggle for the party's soul has exposed fissures in policy, disarray over what it now stands for and distractions both banal and bizarre, "redneck stew" included.

Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who does "not necessarily buy into traditional Darwinian theory," and is celebrated for losing more than 100lb in weight, appeals to Christian evangelicals but not fiscal conservatives. Romney, a Mormon forced to backtrack over a claim that he saw his father march with Martin Luther King, appeals to social, economic and foreign policy conservatives, but not those who regard his religion as a cult.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor praised for his leadership after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for his part plays well with so-called "security moms" concerned about terrorism, but less well in the heartland because of his liberal views, three marriages and performance 10 years ago on Saturday Night Live as a granny in a floral dress. The resurgent Senator John McCain can trump varmint hunting with his Vietnam War record, but has refused to toe the party line on tax cuts and campaign finance reform.

And the one man none likes to mention as they burn up miles in Iowa is President George Bush.

The party is seen as divided, stale and saturated by religion. It has left jaded activists nostalgic for the certainties of the Reagan era and, after losing control of Congress in 2006, panicking about a meltdown in 2008.

Frank Luntz, pollster and political consultant, said there is no mistaking the mood in Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds its primary next week. "Every time the response is the same," he said. "The Democrats can't wait for election day, they are so excited about the prospects and the candidates. The Republicans are much more nervous and much more dissatisfied. There's some disillusionment with the fortunes of the party. There's tremendous fear about the Democrats taking it all, and a sense that they have neither the messenger nor the message."

The destiny the Republicans fear is that of the Conservatives in Britain in 1997: an unpopular leader overshadowed by a long-serving predecessor, a loss of direction and unity, a charismatic opponent promising change, and a hammering at the polls that spells years in the wilderness. The Republicans have plenty of candidates, but none has captured the imagination or threatened to dominate the landscape. Whereas the Democratic debates have shown an embarrassment of riches, including a woman and a black man with star quality, the Republicans have lined up mostly grey-haired men in suits and has lacked an ace. Whereas the Democratic race is thrilling -- Clinton, Obama and John Edwards are virtually neck-and-neck -- quantity rather than quality is the Republican byword.

Adam Nagourney, writing in The New York Times, said: "It is hard to think of another campaign when Republicans have seemed less excited about their choices ... what is worrying Republicans these days is that this tepid rank-and-file reception to the best the party has to offer suggests that the Republican party is hitting a wall after dominating American politics for most of the last 35 years." George Ajjan, a Republican pundit and analyst, said: "It's definitely not a healthy party, that much is clear. The root of it is that from 11 September, 2001, until now the Republican party became a George W. Bush personality cult where it was follow the leader, throw principles to the wind and support the agenda, whatever it might be at any given moment.

"Symptoms of that are a complete lack of leadership, complete lack of cohesion and very weak candidate line-up. If it was stronger, I think there would be more consensus on who should be the presidential nominee at this point." He added: "The Republican party under Bush spent so much of its political capital pursuing the war that a lot of what was traditionally considered a Republican platform about fiscal conservatism -- cutting the budget, looking at how to streamline entitlements like social security -- just fell off the agenda. A lot of people are upset with the President over immigration as well."

Whatever Bush's reputation on the international stage, he appeared to succeed at party level in holding together an unlikely coalition of fiscal conservatives and free-market libertarians, "compassionate" conservatives open to spending public money, an increasingly fractured Christian right, neoconservatives who led the charge into Iraq, and 'realists' who call for a return to pre-9/11 pragmatism in foreign affairs.

Now there are signs that it is falling apart, with the candidates personifying the fragmentation. For example, Giuliani, liberal on abortion and gay rights, and Huckabee, who promises to side with the people against high finance, "would pull apart the coalition from opposite ends: Giuliani alienating the social conservatives and Huckabee the economic (and foreign policy) conservatives," according to the right-wing National Review.

Its online editor, Kathryn Jean Lopez, said: 'I do think Huckabee is tearing at the coalition -- isolating economic conservatives, putting non-evangelical religious social conservatives in an awkward spot, as he seems to be running as a specifically evangelical candidate.'

In churchgoing Iowa, Huckabee's pitch -- it's God, not the economy, stupid -- has stolen the thunder of former Massachusetts governor Romney, who has poured millions of dollars into the state but cannot buy off anti-Mormon sentiments at any price. Huckabee has called for "fair," not free, trade and insisted: "The Republican party needs to represent not just the people on Wall Street but also the people on Main Street."

He rises early each day, runs between six and 10 miles and reads a chapter from the Book of Proverbs. In his Christmas TV advert, he reminded viewers that 'what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ,' as a window behind him was lit to emphasize the shape of a cross. Huckabee has attributed his miraculous rise to "the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000."

Faith came to the fore during Reagan's campaign, but now it has gone too far, according to the political commentator Charles Krauthammer. He complained recently: "This campaign is knee-deep in religion and it's only going to get worse."

The danger for the Republicans is that this could alienate not only non-Christians but anyone who feels anxious about the blurring of boundaries between church and state, playing into the Democrats' hands. However, Huckabee is not faring so well in New Hampshire, where the Christian right holds less sway and he has been branded hopelessly naive on foreign policy. One pundit rated his chances against the Democrat nominee as: "Dead on arrival."

Instead many still predict that Giuliani will overcome likely setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire to win most states in the primary elections on 'Super Tuesday', 5 February. He was the Republican mayor of a Democratic city and is seen as capable of reaching into the middle ground. He mentions Hillary Clinton at every opportunity on the road and is spoiling for the fight.

If their self-preservation instinct kicks in, many Republicans might then be expected swallow their doubts about Giuliani's colourful past and liberal views and rally to his cause. Like the Tories before 1997, they have a formidable reputation as an election-winning machine, as they demonstrated when upsetting the odds to beat John Kerry in 2004. Indeed, some say they are instinctively better at campaigning than governing.


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