Does Huckabee Have to Win Iowa?

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Eric Thayer / Getty

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

To hear Mike Huckabee tell it on the trail, tonight's Iowa caucus is about so much more than just his own political future. It is a contest that will determine whether or not the American dream continues to flourish and whether or not money still controls the system. "If America can elect me as President, then it means the dreams of this country can still come true for anybody," he told an overflow crowd, this afternoon, at his final campaign stop here.

But the simple fact remains: The outcome in Iowa may very well determine Huckabee's fate as a presidential candidate. With a first place showing, he will fly out of Des Moines tonight as a political golden boy, who beat the odds by taking down the massive political machine of Mitt Romney, without any real money or organization.

If he comes in second, however, he risks being sidelined in the Republican contest by the coming fight between Romney and John McCain in New Hampshire on January 8, which will likely carry over to the Michigan primary on January 15. A second place finish for Huckabee also raises the unflattering specter of another evangelical minister, Pat Robertson, who placed a surprise second in the Iowa Republican caucus in 1988, only to have his presidential campaign peter out soon after.

At the noon event, Huckabee attempted to put the contest in some perspective. "We don't have to finish first here for us to feel like we have been successful," he told reporters. "But if we finish first here, I think we have exceeded everyone's expectations, and we have certainly exceeded all of the sort of conventional wisdom standards of what it's supposed to look like if you have been outspent 20 to 1."

This framing works best for Huckabee if he is able to pull off an upset. A second place finish, which only a few months ago would have been considered a major victory, would now likely result in legitimizing the big-spending campaign of Mitt Romney, who led the polls in Iowa for months, largely because of his ability to lavish the state with money. By all rights, Huckabee would proudly continue his campaign to South Carolina, which will vote on January 19 and should be receptive to his down-home, conservative appeal. But the chattering classes will dog him for weeks; Iowa, after all, is a state teaming with evangelical values voters. Over and over again, Huckabee, the former Baptist pastor, will be asked the inverse of Frank Sinatra's famous lyric: "If you can't make it here, how can you make it anywhere?"

No one has ever claimed that the American presidential election process makes any sense. There is no good reason that about 100,000 voters in a Midwest state of 3 million should determine the fate of the Republican Party on a frozen night in January. There is no good reason that two candidates, Romney and Huckabee, should be forced to compete on such an unequal footing when it comes to campaign resources. But politics is rarely about fairness or logic.

As Huckabee said last night, in an appearance with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, politics is a brutal business. "I tell people that if you can't stand the sight of your own blood, don't run for anything," Huckabee joked. "Just buy a ticket and watch it from the stands." Over 11 months of non-stop campaigning, Huckabee has come from nowhere to earn his place on the field. After Iowa, he'll get a better sense of how long he'll get to keep playing.