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Mike Huckabee is learning the inexorable rule of presidential campaigns – one that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani learned the hard way: Whoever stands out gets shot at.

Huckabee, the self-proclaimed Christian Leader, finds himself in the crosshairs now that he’s jumped up in polls in Iowa, South Carolina and nationally. His rivals are busily dumping the negative research they had done on him just in case: taxes, paroles, immigration and AIDS, among others.

Huckabee better start praying for divine help, because it doesn’t look like he’ll get much from a staff that neglected to brief him on the new intelligence finding about Iran’s nukes. Huckabee looked more clueless than Incurious George (Bush).

The Republicans have long been looking for a Southern fundamentalist candidate since Fred Thompson ambled out of stage – and proceeded to fall on his face. Romney is making a desperate bid for tolerance for Mormons – and intolerance for any non-Christians. But it’s going to take a big check to overcome churchgoers’ fervor for Huckabee, who’s the real Southern Baptist thing.

Giuliani’s got to be happy with the spotlight on Mitt and Mike. That means less focus on the Sex On the City travels that he billed to New York.

Hillary Clinton fell back after she went through the same trial by fire. It started when her campaign’s strategy succeeded: They made her look inevitable. Once she became inevitable, it was time to find all her faults.

Bill Clinton didn’t help when he popped up and told us he opposed the Iraq war all along. He made us forget the good things about the First Clinton Era and remember the bad: “I did not have sex with that woman” and “it depends on what the definition of is is.”

Barack Obama is surging now, Huckabee-like, as the alternative. He has survived one early turn in the shooting gallery, wounded but still walking.

Still lurking is John Edwards. The dirty little secret of the Democratic race is that Edwards’ strength may be partly chromosomal: He’s a white man, and Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire may calculate that they risk losing the election with a woman or an African-American.

My hunch is that Iowa and New Hampshire will take Hillary down a peg. The spotlight then will focus on Obama or Edwards, whichever one emerges. Then the lucky winner will spend January battling the full onslaught from the media and the Clinton attack machine.

Remember what happened to John McCain in 2000 after he beat Bush in New Hampshire. It’s a brutal process.

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