(CNSNews.com) - In 1996, it was Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan. In 2000, it was George W. Bush and John McCain. The battle for the Republican presidential nomination typically narrows down to two candidates: the presumed national front-runner and the plucky insurgent candidate.
While 2008 is a different kind of primary for Republicans, with no candidate holding the air of inevitability, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has established himself as the clear national front-runner, despite his socially liberal views on abortion, guns and homosexual rights.
Meanwhile, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee - despite misgivings on the right regarding his record on taxes - has come out of nowhere to be the front-runner in Iowa, where the first contest is held. He has pulled into second place nationally.
The race is far from being narrowed down, as McCain, an Arizona senator, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are still viable. But if Huckabee and Giuliani are the last men standing, it could put Republican voters in a precarious position.
"If it comes down to Rudy and Huck, then we will indeed see which wing of the party is stronger - social or fiscal," Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told Cybercast News Service.
Where would Republicans go in a contest of a fiscal conservative and social liberal against a social conservative, fiscal liberal?
"A party cannot fly without two strong wings," Sabato continued. "This Giuliani and Huckabee stand-off could damage GOP chances in the fall if it becomes savage. The two wings will have to find a way to reconcile rapidly or the Democrats will have yet another advantage for November 2008."
It won't likely have any long-term damage on the party, said Lee Edwards, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of the "Conservative Revolution," a book on the history of the conservative movement.
"It's an interesting paradox of the economic conservative, social liberal Giuliani versus Huckabee, who is just the opposite," Edwards said. "In the primary, these issues make a lot of difference. But in the general, a candidate knows he has to bring the strains together.
"If Giuliani gets the nomination, he'll say to social conservatives, you don't want Hillary. If Huckabee is the nominee, he knows he'll have to reach out to economic conservatives, pledge not to raise taxes, and say, 'the first thing Hillary Clinton will do is raise taxes,'" he added.
Huckabee, who as Arkansas governor boosted taxes on gasoline and cigarettes and holds protectionist views on trade, points out that he cut taxes more than 90 times in Arkansas, increased the child care credit, lowered capital gains taxes, repealed capital gains taxes on home sales, and set up tax-free savings accounts for medical care and college education.
Giuliani, meanwhile, hasn't retreated from his pro-abortion, anti-gun record but touts his strong stance on national security. He also points out that as mayor of New York City he went after crime and prostitution and helped close porn shops.
"What this is going to do is allow the party in '08 to define itself," said Gary Rose, a political science professor with Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Conn., in an interview.
"This would be a fight between the older eastern establishment moderate-to-liberal wing of the party represented by Rudy versus the Bible belt of the Midwest and South represented by Huckabee," Rose said.
It's a battle Republicans have seen before, Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, told Cybercast News Service. "Will it cause a big divide in the party? Probably not."
Duffy thinks a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket is likely.
"Somebody like Giuliani will have to get ideological and geographical balance on the ticket," she said.
Giuliani is behind in most of the states holding primaries in January but is pinning his hopes on Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when 19 states including California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York have their primary. Huckabee hopes to build momentum from a victory in Iowa. (See Primary Schedule)
A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll released Wednesday shows Giuliani leading Huckabee 23 percent to 17 percent nationally. In the Real Clear Politics average of all presidential polls, the spread is larger, with Giuliani leading with 25.5 percent, while Huckabee, McCain, and Thompson are in a virtual tie for second place.
The Real Clear Politics polling average for Iowa shows Huckabee with only a slight lead over Romney. But the Des Moines Register poll has Huckabee up by five points in the state. Romney holds a commanding lead in New Hampshire, where Huckabee comes in at fourth place behind Giuliani and McCain.
New Hampshire is more fluid than polls reflect, Duffy said. If Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton wins the Iowa Caucus, independents in New Hampshire would likely vote in the Republican primary, which could shift the race toward McCain, who has been doing well there.
A loss in Iowa and New Hampshire would be fatal to Romney, Duffy said. That would leave an opening for Huckabee or other candidates, she said.
On the other hand, "Now Huckabee is Giuliani's best friend. The more uncertainty he causes the process, the better the mix is for him to win the nomination on Feb. 5."
Giuliani holds a slight lead over Romney in Michigan and Nevada, both states where Huckabee is behind McCain and Thompson, according to the Real Clear Politics average.
Meanwhile, Romney is ahead of the pack in South Carolina, according to the polling average. But other polls show the state's race in a dead heat. If one or more of the top-tier candidates falls to the way side, Huckabee could gain southern support, Duffy said.
In Florida, Giuliani leads every poll. But different polls have a different verdict on who is running second between Romney and Huckabee.
Should Huckabee and Giuliani emerge, it could become a question of electability, Sabato said.
"If Clinton survives Iowa and is clearly the leader for the Democratic nomination in January, then a slew of national polls will match her up with Giuliani and Huckabee," Sabato said.
"If she is tied or thereabouts with Rudy, while Clinton leads Huckabee by a large margin, then Rudy will be assisted dramatically. There are enough pragmatic Republicans who are horrified by the idea of a Hillary presidency to get Rudy nominated," he added.
"But if Huckabee's rise manages to even-out his contest with Hillary, then another dynamic will kick in," said Sabato. "Huckabee is closer to the Republican norm on most of the key social issues than Rudy is, especially in the south - and the southern states, with the possible exception of Florida, could coalesce around Huckabee."
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