IN TRANSIT FROM DES MOINES TO MANCHESTER --On their last day of campaigning for the Iowa caucuses and with the New Hampshire and South Carolina tests looming, the two bona fide Southern hopefuls in the Republican presidential field had personas that meshed in important particulars and diverged in others.
Ditto with their destinies: Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee famously finished first in GOP ranks, while ex-Tennessee senator Fred Thompson managed a distant third. That's the divergence; the mesh is that neither is out of the woods, but both are still in the game.
No sooner had Huckabee finished off his up-from-nothing miracle in Iowa than such bell cows of the Christian right as Richard Viguerie were trying to disown him. Not for doctrinal heresies of the religious sort but for deviation from the tax-cutting priorities of the Republican Party elite. Viguerie, who a generation ago assisted greatly in fusing the social and economic conservatisms of the Reagan era, essentially accused Huckabee - an economic populist who dares to assail "Wall Street Republicans" -- of sawing off the economic leg of that coalition.
This refrain was promptly parroted by that cockatee of the airwaves, Rush Limbaugh - prompting a brief back-and-forth between himself and the candidate, who, unlike so many other name Republicans, doesn't mind pulling on such feathers.
Huckabee is a threat to an established order, and, just as establishment Democrats, assisted by the establishment media, were able to kill off Howard Dean's hopes in 2004, so might the GOP hierarchy do likewise to those of the Republican heresiarch - his first-place finish in Iowa notwithstanding.
As for Thompson, the line on him for several months has been that the actor/politician from Tennessee had fallen way short of the enormous ballyhoo of his advance billing and long ago flunked his audition.
Indeed, Thompson has played the role assigned him every way but right. He has looked haggard, fumbled his lines, and done everything a starring player shouldn't. Coming from the same moderate tradition (and stable) as fellow Tennessee Republicans Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander, he was billed as a conservative's conservative - the kind who could put to rest the fears of Viguerie and Limbaugh and suchlike who see George W. Bush's house of cards - and thereby the party's generational dominance of American affairs - hopelessly aquiver.
However late in the day, Thompson has seemingly found his motivation for such a role and learned to play it. That was the conclusion one could draw from the barn-burner he delivered to a packed room at the West Des Moines Marriott on Thursday morning, the day of the caucuses. So strong a showing it was, so animated the reception from his audience that it seemed obvious that Thompson, like one of those Miss America alternates, was a potential standby in case of trouble with the GOP frontrunner.
Any frontrunner - be it Huckabee or the resurgent John McCain or Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani or whoever. All he had to do was survive by fnishing third in Iowa - which, by the skin of those thespian pearly-whites, he did.
As if in recognition of their doppelganger status, both men ended their appeals to voters in Iowa with overlapping thematics: "
Thompson: "This is a country where a country boy or girl in Tennessee or Iowa or anywhere else can grow up and have a pretty good chance at the American dream. Huckabee: "If American can elect me as president, if means that the dreams of this country can come true for anybody.
Thompson: "I've got a 100-percent pro-life voting record. I've always been pro-life. That's why so many right-to-life organizations have endorsed me. Huckabee: "I'm pro-life. It's not a position that the pollsters gave me last week. I've been saying this all my life. Check me out. I'm not pro-life because I'm political. I'm political because I'm pro-life."
Thompson: "What you see is what you get I don't think I've ever been accused of flip-flopping or choosing my positions on issues to win an election." Huckabee: "You need to believe that someone is telling you the truth, who'll be honest with you We need a president who believes something and will do what he believes."
Thompson: "Our best days are still before us." Huckabee: "I want the best generation to be then one that hasn't been born yet"
Thompson: "We need to unite as Republicans and reach out and get some independents and Reagan Democrats." Huckabee: "We need to have [with us] not just a Republican Party but we need a country."
Thompson:Tonight is important...We've got to show them Let's go out and shock the world. Huckabee: Tonight we can make a statement heard all over the world. Your grandchildren will be saying, were you there that night that guy nobody had ever heard of won the presidency?
And in fact: If Thompson recovers from his long limbo in the presidential race and becomes his party's candidate of last resort, he will indeed shock the world. For that matter, if Huckabee can continue riding his current star and build on his triumph in Iowa to be the nominee, that outcome, too, will resound all over the world.
To repeat: There are differences between the men and differences between the candidacies. That is the very point. Only one of them could have said this on Thursday: "The big-government, left-wing, high-taxes, weak-on-security Democratic Party is just salivating about taking the reins and the power just so they can kinda roll to a welfare state. And we're not going to let that happen"
That was Thompson the D.A., of course, heaping on the red meat, knowing what his role is now. Huckabee, the ex-preacher, is smoother, milder, in a curious way genuinely ecumencial. When he jammed with a local rock band in Hennick on his first day in New Hampshire after the Iowa vote, he ended up playing bass with evident gusto on "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" and even on the old to-the-barricades stomper from Creedence, "Fortunate Son." He, too, knows what his role is.
Watching what happens to either of them from now on is going to be good theater.
(Flyer political editor Jackson Baker, having followed the presidential-campaign circus out of Iowa, continues his reporting from New Hampshire for the next few days.)