Mike Huckabee’s long farewell to the 2012 presidential contest was not exactly riveting television. If you tuned in to his FOX show after the days of hype about the former Arkansas governor announcing his decision about running on his Saturday night program, you had to suffer through almost a full hour of interviews and Huckabee jamming on the bass guitar before you heard him say the words that he wouldn’t run. That may have disappointed those who voted for him in 2008 and would do so again next year. But it was music to the ears of the other Republican candidates. In a weak field, Huckabee, an outsider and ordained Baptist minister who would up being the runner-up in the 2008 primaries to John McCain, was a potential top tier 2012 candidate. His exit from the race potentially benefits almost all of the other candidates but some more than others.
If you assume, as most people do these days, that Sarah Palin will also stay out the race, the chief beneficiary has to be Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. Bachmann is the darling of the Tea Party crowd as well as a strong social conservative. While most pundits and party insiders consider her politics too extreme and her personality too over the top to be nominated, let alone elected, her outsider status as well as her religious frame of reference is the closest match to Huckabee’s 2008 profile. With evangelicals having a disproportionate impact on the Iowa caucuses, Bachmann is the potential candidate best positioned to benefit from Huckabee’s absence.
Rick Santorum also benefits from Huckabee’s decision. The former senator is the GOP candidate who is most clearly identified with the concerns of social conservatives who were Huckabee voters in 2008. The question for Santorum is whether the midwestern and southern voters who loved Huckabee can fall in love with a Northeastern Italian-American Catholic. The betting here is that while Santorum gets a boost it won’t be decisive. Santorum will inspire some conservatives with his hard line views but compared with the folksy Huckabee, he’s not that loveable. It’s hard to see him charging to the front in Iowa or the other states that Huckabee won last time.
As for the others, they also hope to attract Huckabee loyalists.
Tim Pawlenty certainly benefits from the absence of another former governor in the race. But it’s an open question as to whether Pawlenty’s “Minnesota Nice” style can appeal to the type of voters who were drawn to Huckabee.
It will also be interesting to see whether Newt Gingrich is able to make inroads among former Huckabee voters. Gingrich has said that he intends to contest every state and seems intent on running a campaign that will appeal directly to social conservatives. But whether they buy into Gingrich’s attempt to portray himself as a redeemed sinner will be a fascinating test of conservative opinion. My guess is that social conservatives will consider his marital infidelity while leading impeachment efforts that were rooted in President Clinton’s similar behavior as something that is between the former speaker and his God. But they and other Republicans won’t forget the embarrassment they felt when his hypocrisy was revealed. The wonkish Gingrich can neither play the guitar nor push the right buttons with evangelicals. No sale.