A raucous Iowa caucus

The Wizard of Odds: Iowa begins the road to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul

• "I want to strengthen our homes and our military in order to keep America the hope of the earth."

In a GOP field rife with political abnormalities, it's Romney—despite his alleged Mormonism—who embodies what a good ole Republican should look and sound like. The fact that Huckabee and Paul, two totally different political species, claim the same party is indicative of just how fragmented the GOP is in 2008. Things are so weird that TV evangelist/charlatan Pat Robertson is throwing his support behind a thrice-married, dress-wearing New Yorker.

And then there's Romney, the pristine pretty boy, the one man who appears poised to straddle the rift between social and fiscal conservatives. Not because of his concrete policy positions, but because of his bland, malleable generalities. (Pro-life or pro-choice? Who's asking?) Karl Rove couldn't have concocted a more perfect, voter-friendly ooze of mediocrity in a Petri dish.

In his latest role, Fred Thompson plays a former senator lethargically shuffling toward the White House
Matt Snyders
In his latest role, Fred Thompson plays a former senator lethargically shuffling toward the White House
Iowa conservatives, just minutes before saddling up Fred Thompson and riding him around the room like a show pony
Friends of Fred Thompson
Iowa conservatives, just minutes before saddling up Fred Thompson and riding him around the room like a show pony

 

WHICH BRINGS US TO RUDY. Discounting a brief, unscheduled appearance in Fort Dodge, Rudy Giuliani was a virtual no-show the two weeks before caucuses. When I called Giuliani's Iowa headquarters for comment, I was greeted with a recorded message of ominous woodwinds backing a raspy voice chanting "9/11, 9/11" over and over again.

 

ON JANUARY 3, throngs of caucusers swarmed Iowa's 1,781 precincts in record numbers. An estimated 114,000 people showed up to caucus for the Republicans, exceeding 2000's number of 87,666. (The upswing was even more dramatic on the Democratic side: the 220,588 caucus-goers nearly doubled the 124,000 who showed up in 2004.)

Unusually high turnouts usually mean one of two things: either the field is wide open or people are pissed at the status quo. Judging by who Iowans chose, likely this reflected a mixture of both.

It was just before 8:00 p.m. when CNN projected Michael Dale Huckabee as the GOP's victor. His populist approach had trounced second-place finisher Romney's robust campaign machinery. Affability had trumped organization. Campaign shoe leather had prevailed over campaign spending.

Soon, talking heads were contemplating what peculiar developments the victory of a non-establishment candidate might have in store for a party typically adverse to such ideological deformities.

"What we're seeing is a splintering of the old Reagan coalition," opined CNN political analyst Bill Schneider. "For Republicans trying to keep the party together, this is not good news."

Over at Fox News, GOP stewards grappled for an explanation. "We've all underestimated him," shrugged entrenched neo-con pundit Bill Kristol. "I've underestimated him. And I don't believe he's a one-state wonder."

Four months ago, if you had told these people that the toothy Bible-addict from Arkansas would shoot out of Iowa as the GOP frontrunner, they would have chortled at the sheer ludicrousness of the suggestion.

The absurdity of Huckabee's triumph was perhaps best captured during his victory speech. Standing directly behind him and slightly to his left was none other than a widely grinning Chuck Norris. Wearing a gaudy flannel shirt, the walking punch line looked a bit out of place, as if he were in Iowa to film a Bounty paper towel commercial and had taken a wrong turn somewhere.

So where does that leave us? Who will be the Main Man come September when the Republican National Convention rolls into town? It's still anybody's guess. In the meantime, let's pay close attention to the men behind the curtain.

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