A five horse race?

Following last weekend’s Values Voters conference and the Florida debate, the buzz is that the Republican race is wide-open to the point that any of five candidates — Giuliani, Thompson, Romney, McCain, and Huckabee — might be party’s nominee. Byron York and Dan Balz have both made this case.
Consider me skeptical. Mike Huckabee is an attractive candidate who may make a nice run. But it’s extremely difficult to see him as the Republican nominee. To accomplish this, he would have to surge past Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney as the first choice of hard-core Republican conservatives. Thompson and Romney both have their weaknesses, but Thompson is improving on the campaign trail, and Romney is an effective candidate with vast resources and a head-start in the key early states.
Huckabee, by contrast, has very little money, and possesses limited stature and name recognition. Moreover, many hard-core conservatives doubt his bona fides as a fiscal conservative and/or as a potential leader of the war on terror. The problem isn’t just that Huckabee makes statements like “we broke Iraq” and seems to lack a strong sense of urgency when it comes to Iraq It’s more that he simply doesn’t come across as the man one would want to lead this country in a global war.
McCain is a different matter. He oozes leadership ability, and neither his toughness nor his name recognition is in doubt. Indeed, a year or so ago, many folks (albeit mostly ones who didn’t understand conservatives very well) viewed him as the front-runner. Although he has lost that status, he remains arguably the candidate with the most potential to defeat Hillary Clinton.
Yet McCain is still distrusted by many conservatives who believe (perhaps not without reason) that he has thumbed his nose at us too many times. Let’s assume that McCain’s heroic criticism of President Bush for not adopting until recently the strategy that gives us the best hope of success in Iraq cancels out his support of comprehensive immigration reform. The issues, such as McCain-Feingold, that drew the ire of so many conservatives even before this summer’s immigration fight still remain.
And quite apart from conservative anger, it’s not clear that McCain can put together a coalition that will sustain him through the primary season. He’s likely to remain the second choice (behind Giuliani) of a majority of moderate Republicans and the third or fourth choice of social conservatives.
It may also be worth noting that the polls don’t show the Republican race becoming a true five man affair. The latest Rasmussen poll has Huckabee at 8 percent. That’s up only slightly (and probably within the margin of error) from the 6 percent he’s been commanding in Rasmussen polls for some time. The same new Rasmussen poll has McCain at 12 percent, and his RCP average is 13.6. That’s more or less where he’s been since July. In fairness, though, Huckabee and McCain seem to have made moves in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.
I don’t put great stock in polls because I agree with those who say that a very large number of Republican voters haven’t yet made up their mind. But the dynamics of the race suggest that this is not a genuine five horse contest.
SCOTT adds: Scott Rasmussen writes to point out that yesterday’s edition of Rasmussen Reports is consistent with Paul’s analysis:

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