Can Huckabee Stay on Top?

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Cliff Hawkins / Getty

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee speaks to supporters during his caucus night event, January 3, 2008 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The talented messenger beat the man with the money. The saver of souls beat the savior of the Winter Olympics. The son of a mechanic with crooked teeth beat the corporate titan with a superhero chin.

And it wasn't even that close.

Less than an hour after the Republican caucuses began, cable news called Iowa for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ended the evening with an impressive nine point victory over Mitt Romney, the one-time frontrunner with deep pockets. The ballroom at Huckabee's headquarters at the Embassy Suites had already burst into cheers: "We like Mike! We like Mike! We like Mike!" Before long, the candidate emerged, backed by his most photogenic supporter, Chuck Norris, in brown lumberjack plaid, to soak up the moment and warn of the long road ahead.

"I wish it was all over tonight and we could celebrate the whole thing," Huckabee told the crowd. "But unfortunately if this were a marathon we have only run half of it, but we have run it well."

Within hours Huckabee would be on a plane, shared with his traveling press corps, for the next hurdle in his long-shot bid for the White House. He knows as well as anyone that the evangelicals who lifted him to victory in Iowa will not follow him to New Hampshire, where he still polls in single digits — fourth place. Once again, he will face candidates who are far better funded and organized. His New Hampshire staff — currently just six full-time people — is less than half of what he had in Iowa.

But he will, for the first time, be able to campaign as a clear winner. Aides remained confident that Huckabee could continue to use his rhetorical talents to earn free-media exposure, which is central to the campaign's strategy. "Each and every one of you in this room have the power to carry a message," said Ed Rollins, the Huckabee campaign chairman, in a press conference following the victory party.

The rest is still very much a work in progress. After a year of campaigning, Huckabee still lacks some of the core pieces of a national front-runner campaign. Many of his policy proposals, both foreign and domestic, have not yet been fleshed out. His research department is thinly staffed, and his press shop is constantly overwhelmed. His fundraising operation remains a bit of an unproven mystery. Chip Saltsman, the campaign manager, said the conversation about new hires would begin on the overnight plane ride. "This is a campaign that has been taking fire nationally for a while now," he said. "We knew we were going to have to get bigger."

For weeks, Huckabee sustained an intense onslaught of negative attacks from Romney, both on television and in mailings. But in the end, entrance polls suggested that the attacks had failed to dent Huckabee's golden-boy image. But as he moves forward he may look back on his Iowa experience as a springtime walk through knee-high corn. By winning Iowa, he only temporarily defeated Romney, and in the process he gained new rivals, in John McCain and, perhaps, Rudy Giuliani. He is also sure to attract new scrutiny from the national political press, which has little influence among Iowa voters, but has already shown distain for Huckabee's regular stumbles on the stump, especially in discussions of foreign policy.

Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, also faces two long weeks before the next state with a significant evangelical population, South Carolina, goes to the polls. The campaign hoped to bridge the gap with his considerable talents as a speaker, both before large crowds and in more intimate settings. "We are going to compete in every state," said Saltsman. "We are going to depend on Gov. Huckabee and his great ability to communicate."

If nothing else, Huckabee's decisive victory in Iowa has established him for the first time as a serious contender for the White House, despite the doubts of many in the Republican establishment. When asked Thursday night about the lack of establishment support in the previous months, Saltsman quipped, "I would say a few are emailing me right now."

In his victory speech, Huckabee came close to gloating about his victory over the doubters, who have said for months that he could not win with such an ill-funded operation. "People really are more important than the purse, and what a great lesson for America to learn," he told the cheering crowd. "Tonight I hope we will forever change how Americans look at their political system."