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It’s far from a first-round knockout for the GOP

Times Staff Writer

The resounding victory of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa’s Republican caucuses means the race for the GOP’s presidential nomination remains up for grabs among at least four candidates and may not be resolved until 24 states vote in a climactic Super Tuesday next month, Republican political analysts said Thursday.

“This keeps the race completely wide open,” said pollster Whit Ayres. “This is still the most open race for a Republican nomination in modern memory -- no question about it.”

Huckabee, a Baptist minister-turned-politician who was almost unknown outside his home state as recently as last summer, drew the votes of thousands of self-described evangelical Christians to score a decisive victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But the race for the Republican nomination moves next to New Hampshire, where Christian conservatives are a much smaller share of the electorate -- and where polls suggest Huckabee stands virtually no chance of winning. Instead, the race there is principally between Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

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After New Hampshire, the campaign moves to Michigan and South Carolina, where Huckabee, Romney and McCain all appear competitive, and then to Florida, where former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is spending millions of dollars on a risky late-state strategy to seize control of the race.

“This is a big win for Huckabee. . . . But it’s also a victory for McCain,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who is unaligned in the presidential race. “It’s a victory for McCain in that the race is now broken up, and it’s coming into a part of the calendar that’s favorable to McCain: New Hampshire and Michigan.”

McCain, who spent little time or money campaigning in Iowa, finished in a virtual tie for third place with former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. In New Hampshire, though, recent polls have shown McCain closing in on Romney.

If Romney had won in Iowa, he would have gained a boost for his New Hampshire campaign -- and a chance to score wins in the first two contests of the nomination campaign. Instead, he risks two losses in a row, and suffering “two black eyes in the first two events is going to be very difficult to overcome,” Reed said.

“This race is going to extend to Feb. 5,” he predicted, citing the date when 16 states, including California, will hold primary elections and eight more will hold caucuses. “It’s too fragmented to finish before then. And there are too many delegates on Feb. 5 for candidates to pass up.”

The prospect of such a contested nomination battle is unsettling to some Republicans. In recent years, the party has most often entered an election year with a leading candidate who, while challenged by upstarts, most often went on to win.

“This year, there’s no heir apparent,” Ayres said.

The issue is about more than tradition. Since 1968, the party that has chosen its nominee first -- and thus gained more time to heal the divisions of the primary campaign -- has won the White House eight of 10 times.

In Iowa, Huckabee drew a huge turnout of voters who described themselves as evangelical Christians -- about 60% of Republican caucusgoers, according to an “entrance poll” conducted by a consortium of news media. Of those voters, 45% cast ballots for Huckabee, against 19% for Romney. (Romney ran ahead of Huckabee among Republicans who said they did not consider themselves evangelical Christians.)

“The proportion of social conservatives in New Hampshire is far smaller than it is in Iowa,” Ayres said. “Huckabee will do well to come in third there.”

New Hampshire “has evangelicals, but they are Yankees first,” said Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “They tend to be a little more taciturn in their convictions.”

As a result, several Republican strategists said, Huckabee’s best move would be to spend as little time as possible in New Hampshire -- and head straight to South Carolina, where the GOP electorate voting on Jan. 19 looks more like Iowa’s.

“South Carolina is where he shows that he can put together a nomination fight,” said Reed, who managed former Sen. Bob Dole’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1996.

The Iowa results featured two other factors that could affect the rest of the campaign.

One was the tie for third place between McCain and Thompson. If Thompson had finished fourth, some Republican strategists expected him to drop out of the race and endorse McCain. But Thompson denied those stories Thursday, and his respectable finish in Iowa might have encouraged him to stay in.

A second, unusual factor in the GOP race was the Democratic result. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s decisive win in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses gave a boost to his campaign in New Hampshire, where he is trying to attract independent voters.

Obama’s momentum poses a potential problem for McCain, because the two candidates are competing for some of the same voters. In New Hampshire, independents can vote in either primary on election day -- but only in one of the two. Much of McCain’s New Hampshire victory in 2000 was propelled by independent support.

“If Obama-mania takes hold, that could siphon independent votes away from McCain,” Reed said.

“I believe that what happens in the Democratic caucus actually has more impact on the Republican primary in New Hampshire than what happens in the Republican caucus,” Cullen said.

On the sidelines, Giuliani, who began the year as a national front-runner, may be cheering, Ayres said.

“Giuliani’s best hope is multiple winners in the first four primaries, a muddled picture, and then he wins Florida,” the pollster said. “Then he can go into Feb. 5, if not in the actual lead, than close to the lead in delegates, and he can claim it’s a wide-open ballgame. It’s like getting into the playoffs by having your competitors lose.”

Giuliani, campaigning in New Hampshire on Thursday, acknowledged that he was following an unusual strategy.

“We see this as a different kind of election,” he told reporters. “This is the strategy that we selected pretty close to Day One. So maybe other people would get pretty nervous in situations like this, but this is what we expected.”

McCain, who also spent most of the day in New Hampshire, acknowledged that his hopes hang largely on a victory there.

“A little straight talk: A lot rests on what happens here next Tuesday,” he said.

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doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Bedford, N.H., and Maeve Reston in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.


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