The new NYT/CBS poll has Mike Huckabee tied with Rudy Giuliani among all Republicans. This is startling change since Huckabee was a statistical blip at recently as October. So who is Mike Huckabee? One theory is that he's Howard Dean or Pat Buchanan--a flash in the pan candidate who jumps to an early lead but fades out just as quickly. Another possibility is that he's George McGovern or Barry Goldwater--the outsider candidate who trumps the party establishment by winning the nomination, but divides his party and cruises to defeat in the general election. The final option is that he's Jimmy Carter--another outsider who not only won the nomination, but managed to go on to win the general election.
My guess is that he's George McGovern or Barry Goldwater. One of the reasons that Dean and Buchanan faded out was that there were acceptable establishment candidates, John Kerry and Bob Dole, who were able to unite the party and offer a safer and more moderate choice. This year, each of Huckabee's Republican rivals has serious weaknesses and also divides the GOP. Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on a number of hot button issue over the years and his Mormonism is controversial among a non-trivial portion of Republican evangelicals. Rudy Giuliani holds views on social issue at odds with most social conservatives and his personal scandals have tainted his accomplishments as mayor of NYC. John McCain is also at odds with the Republican base and Fred Thompson seems to be sleep-walking through his campaign. Though he still has a tough row to hoe, I can see how Huckabee wins the nomination against such divided and flawed opposition.
Can Huckabee, like Carter, go on to win the general election? Probably not. Not only does President Bush's unpopularity hurt any Republican nominee, but Huckabee has his own weaknesses as a general election candidate, namely that in the aftermath of 9/11, it seems less likely that people are ready to trust the foreign policy credentials of the governor of a small state.