There was a moment just a few weeks ago when Mitt Romney, despite anemic numbers in national polling, appeared poised to run the table in the early primaries and ride the momentum to the GOP nomination. He'd win Iowa handily, use that win to turn a close race with Giuliani in New Hampshire into a easy victory, then take Michigan and hopefully South Carolina in quick succession.
Then along came Mike Huckabee who, out of nowhere, has ascended to a tie or small lead over Romney in Iowa, and a virtual tie with Giuliani in national polls. The widespread--and seemingly indisputable--thinking is that this is very bad news for Romney and, as such, good news for Giuliani. If Romney loses Iowa, he may not win New Hampshire (or Michigan or South Carolina). Even if Giuliani wins few (or none) of those races, a divided field keeps him in contention going into Florida and the other big states he's counting on to put him over the top. So far, so good.
But while Huckabee may hurt Romney by denying him some of that early momentum, it's not clear he's taking away his actual voters, at least outside of Iowa. According to the graphs at Pollster.com, support for Romney is still increasing nationally, despite the Huckabee surge, while support for Giuliani and Fred Thompson is falling sharply. A look at the early states paints a similar picture. Yes, Romney's numbers have declined recently in Iowa (though again, more modestly than Giuliani's and Thompson's), but the former Massachusetts governor's support is increasing in New Hampshire (where he has an 18 point lead over Giuliani, who's in danger of slipping to third place behind John McCain), Michigan (where Romney seems to be ahead of Giuliani for the first time), and South Carolina (ditto, with Huckabee looking as though he may pass Giuliani as well in the near future).
Much of the Huckabee-kills-Romney thinking seems to come from the idea that, because both men are targeting social conservatives, if one is gaining support, the other must be losing it. But, apart from Iowa, where Huckabee appears to be stealing support from the entire field more or less evenly, it looks as though his increasing numbers are coming largely at the expense of Giuliani, Thompson, and (outside of New Hampshire) McCain. (Who switches from Giuliani to Huckabee? Beats me. Voters are strange creatures.)
In any case, my counterintuitive thought (sure to be utterly disproven within days or hours, given the volatility of the race) is that, in the end, Huckabee may hurt Giuliani as much or more than Romney. If Huckabee takes Iowa, it doesn't look good for Romney, but I'm not sure how it looks any better for Giuliani, who will have come in a distant third to two far less well-known candidates. Even with a bloody nose, Romney probably still wins New Hampshire, where Giuliani could fall to third or even fourth behind McCain and/or a surging Huckabee. With anti-momentum like this, Giuliani is unlikely to regain his lead in Michigan or South Carolina, where he could again come in third or worse. And if, four states in, Giuliani has yet to notch a win and rarely even been the runner-up--well, let's just say that he's not likely to be holding onto that 15-point lead in Florida...