WASHINGTON – Iowa Republicans chose between their hearts and their heads.
Mike Huckabee appealed to emotions, an ordained Southern Baptist minister with rock-solid culturally conservative credentials who is beloved by Christian evangelicals influential in the caucuses. Mitt Romney was the practical pick, an accomplished businessman with a powerhouse organization and a seemingly endless supply of money to go the distance — and thwart the socially liberal Rudy Giuliani.
After a year of tumult, the race amounted to a classic David vs. Goliath battle, with a pair of former governors in a high-stakes slugfest for the coveted prize — the front-runner mantle heading into the New Hampshire primary a mere five days later.
Others aimed for better-than-expected showings; Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Giuliani and Texas Rep. Ron Paul sought relevancy, one-time Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson survival.
Iowa had the first say in the most volatile, wide-open GOP nomination race in a half-century, and the state's recent history bodes well for the caucus winner. It has chosen the Republican who eventually secured the nomination in the two most recent contested GOP competitions — George W. Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996.
But unlike back then, there is no establishment candidate this year and conservatives who make up the core of the GOP's base had nowhere to automatically turn in the run up to 2008. President Bush is barred from seeking another term, Vice President Cheney doesn't want the job and no obvious successor exists.
Thus, conservatives spent much of the past year searching for a candidate to embrace; they found flaws in each of the many candidates in the remarkably crowded GOP field.
Then Huckabee got a look.
The former Arkansas governor trailed his better-known rivals in money, manpower and polls all year before a surprise autumn surge fueled by fellow religious conservatives vaulted him from the back of the crowded pack of candidates to the front. With a bare-bones campaign and modest fundraising, he rolled the dice; he bet his stellar communication skills and likablity would carry him to a win.
Romney, a self-made multimillionaire who poured more than $17 million into his presidential bid, sunk $7 million into Iowa advertising to emerge as the caucus leader for months. But he struggled to overcome skepticism among many conservatives about his Mormon faith and his authenticity on issues right-flank Republicans champion. The former Massachusetts governor pinned his hopes on his organizational strength and financial advantage.
Romney benefited to some degree from a fear among conservatives that a backer of abortion rights and gay rights like Giuliani would be the nominee.
In the end, the race for the gold medal in Iowa boiled down to message vs. money — and one of them won out.