Folksy Huckabee wins over Iowa Republicans

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The race for the Republican presidential nomination has taken an unexpected turn with polls showing the dark-horse candidate Mike Huckabee – a pro-death penalty, pro-Iraq war, social conservative from Arkansas – galloping suddenly to a close second place in Iowa which holds its caucuses in just 42 days.

Growing grass-roots support from conservative Christian Republicans in the state seems to be feeding the surge for the former Arkansas governor, who has also drawn increasing attention over recent weeks for his down-home form of charm and humour as he travels every corner of the Iowa map.

An ABC-Washington Post poll shows Mr Huckabee drawing 24 per cent of the votes if the Iowa caucuses were held today. That puts him in a dead heat with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who, at 28 per cent, led Iowa for months but has seen a flattening of his support.

A win for Mr Huckabee could scramble assumptions about the Republican field. It would be a big blow for Mr Romney who is counting on a win to propel him into the primary contests. New Hampshire confirmed on Wednesday that its primary will be on 8 January – just five days after the caucus voting in Iowa.

Like Bill Clinton before him, Mr Huckabee, 52 was born in Hope, Arkansas. A guitar player and rock '*' roll fan, he rose quickly through the political ranks in his state and became governor in 1996, serving until January this year. He is an ordained Baptist minister who believes in creationism, supports a ban on abortion and opposes any kind of marriage or civil unions for gays and lesbians.

It is these positions, as well as his folksy campaigning style, that seem to be captivating evangelicals, who make up 40 per cent of likely Republican caucus voters in Iowa. "He is articulate and articulates the Christian message very well," said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance.

Still, pulling off a victory in the state will not be easy for Mr Huckabee, who has a far less extensive get-out-the-vote organisation than Mr Romney. Beyond Iowa, when television advertising becomes king, things look more daunting still because of his comparative lack of campaign dollars.

His rise up the field now suggests dissatisfaction among voters with the other candidates. Conservatives remain suspicious of the relatively liberal social positions of the former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who still leads the polls nationally, and of the Mormon background of Mr Romney.

Suspense also seems to be building for Democrats, whose Iowa caucuses are on the same day. Another recent ABC-Washington Post poll gave Barack Obama a slim lead over Hillary Clinton while John Edwards was stuck in third place. Even on the national level, the once impressive lead of Mrs Clinton is showing signs of erosion.

In the case of Mr Huckabee, his main asset until now may have been his underdog status. "On the Republican side, it is obvious that if you were going to pick a surprise, you would pick Huckabee," said Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "But how much of a surprise is he, since he has been covered extensively now and everyone knows he is moving up in the polls?"

Certainly, his rivals are aware of it. And they are setting their sights on him, with questions being thrown at him about his record of raising taxes in Arkansas, giving scholarships to the children of illegal immigrants and drawing rebukes for alleged ethical lapses while in the governor's office.