Front-runners shaking things up

In my role as a cable television political analyst and as a political junkie, my take on the results in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary is simply this: The political establishment on both sides of the aisle took a punch in the nose.

Many of us sensed this developing as early as last August, on the occasion of the Iowa GOP straw poll in Ames. I attended the straw poll as a neutral observer and was struck by what I saw.

For those who may need a refresher course, the Iowa straw poll is a concoction of the Iowa Republican Party to fill its coffers every four years. Attendees pay for the right to cast a vote for their candidate in a non-binding political beauty contest to which the media gives an extraordinary amount of coverage. Candidates pull out all stops to get their supporters there.

The relevance of the event is debated every four years. Phil Gramm tied Bob Dole in 1995, and was an early casualty of real voting in the primary season months down the road. This year, John McCain tallied all of 101 votes, outpacing only a guy named John Cox. Yet it is perceived as an organizationally mandatory stop on the way to the nomination.

For Straw Poll 2007, Mitt Romney shelled out more than $2 million in television ads, not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct mail, consultants, staff, a big barbecue on the grounds, and the purchase of tickets for his supporters to vote for him on the big day.

Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, shipped watermelons in from Arkansas at a cost of a few thousand dollars.

Romney won the event by a large margin, but not by a margin reflective of the dollars spent. Huckabee finished a strong second, followed by Sam Brownback (remember him?) and Tom Tancredo. Seems like so long ago ...

The grass-roots ground games of Huckabee, Brownback and Tancredo far out-delivered Romney's high-tech plan.

Huckabee is doing politics the old-fashioned way. He is energizing the grass roots -- not grass tops-- and this is a threat to the system.

With Huckabee being a former Southern Baptist pastor and denominational leader, one could rightly expect the evangelical establishment to line up behind him. But as his campaign manager once noted, when they would meet with these "leaders," they were basically patted on the head and told to come back when they get "traction," to which the candidate responded, "You are my traction!"

But he's doing it without them. As Marvin Olasky, editor of World magazine recently noted, the evangelical leaders are "following their followers."

Indeed, the political establishment is shaking in its boots because the top candidates in both parties are not their anointed ones.

Barack Obama is shaking up the Democrat establishment as well. His campaign is poking the Clinton machine in the eye, and they didn't realize it until he had removed his finger from their optic cavity.

And John McCain, who I've always said is more comfortable being uncomfortable, is doing his thing and doing it well. It wasn't long ago that the conventional wisdom (read: establishment) wrote him and his campaign off. In fact, that was after McCain jettisoned his high-paid and big-spending establishment consultants and got back to being John McCain.

They call McCain a maverick. I've always thought that was establishment code for "we can't control him." After a lackluster start, he removed the shackles, dismissed the establishment types in his campaign and concluded if he was going to do poorly, he could do poorly without them and save a lot of money. To everyone's surprise but his own, McCain has surged (pun intended) along with our new success in Iraq, and could well be waving his arms in victory behind a podium in Minneapolis in September.

Hillary Clinton struck a blow for the Clinton machine in New Hampshire and kept the establishment's EKG beeping for another day, and perhaps beyond. But the lines have been drawn, and politics as we have known it has been turned on its head.

Huckabee, McCain and Obama have gotten their traction by courting the grass roots. Huckabee and Obama's wins in Iowa were blows to the establishment. McCain stuck it to them in New Hampshire -- again. Now, it's on to Michigan and South Carolina to see which non-establishment juggernauts keep rolling.

Whichever bandwagon prevails, the establishment types will be running to jump on. The challenge over the coming months for these anti-establishment candidates will be to resist the lure of the Status Quo Caucus in Washington, D.C., and stay focused on the grass roots.

J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, writes a twice-monthly column for the Review-Journal.