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Mike Huckabee’s gone from the 2012 GOP presidential field, but don’t expect his chief rival, Mitt Romney, to rejoice. The two men were running neck-and-neck in the polls atop the GOP field for months, except for a brief, fanciful flirtation by voters with gadfly Donald Trump six weeks ago
In fact, nearly half of Republican voters seemed destined to divide their allegiances among the two former presidential candidates who split the conservative vote and finished second andthird to John McCain in 2008. And for Romney, who has little chance of wooing the evangelical voters who still adore Huckabee, there was some comfort in knowing that the former Arkansas Governor, who’s considered “soft” on taxes and government spending, couldn’t challenge his supremacy with economic conservatives.
Romney, in fact, was quietly hoping that he might use Huckabee as something of a foil with party moderates, who would clearly prefer a more mainstream-sounding – and less devoutly Mormon – candidate, but haven’t had much luck convincing one to run against such a powerful and resurgently-popular incumbent like Obama.
But now the GOP field’s wide open, and that actually hurts Romney more than anyone else. All those evangelical voters destined to give Huckabee a second win in the Iowa caucuses – his upset victory in the Haweye State in 2008 first catapulted him into contention – are free to look elsewhere, and if history is any guide, they won’t be looking at Romney, but more likely at candidates who can also contest his support among economic conservatives, especially a growing chorus of critics of “RomneyCare.”
In the short term, most people agree that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty stands to gain the most from Huckabee’s withdrawal. But that’s only because Pawlenty is as desperate for a win in Iowa as Huckabee was in 2008, and because he has the next best campaign operation established in the state with some of Huckabee’s best operatives working for him.
But Pawlenty is a political Caspar Milquetoast, an articulate but largely uninspiring speaker whose chief qualification as prospective GOP standard-bearer may be that he’s managed not to alienate anyone yet and could well end up the last-man standing in a hopelessly divided GOP field, the colorless, least-of-all-evils candidate with no real chance of unseating the charismatic Obama.
So who actually stands to gain most? Probably anyone who can still trigger major funding support while unifying the party’s competing wings more than either Huckabee or Romney can. And that may well mean former two-term Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who probably won’t do so well in Iowa, but who’s looking instead to New Hampshire and especially South Carolina, to wrest control of the nomination, much as McCain did in 2008.
McCain’s one of the driving forces behind Huntsman’s “dark horse” candidacy, which is premised on uniting the GOP establishment with the Tea Party and Christian conservatives. And more than Pawlenty, who’s positioning himself increasingly on the right, Huntsman could have a real shot at drawing in big-time GOP funding support, most of which remains on the sidelines, awaiting a stronger candidate and a more clearly defined field
Huntsman recently gave a well-received commencement address at the University of South Carolina, and rumor has it, he’s already won the unofficial endorsement of the state’s new Indian-American Gov. Nikki Haley, which offers him an early bridge to the Tea Party that backed Haley’s candidacy, as well as access to the state’s powerful Republican establishment. South Carolina is considered the gateway to the Southern primaries, and indeed to the GOP nomination: GOP candidiates can lose in Iowa or New Hampshire, but since 1980, no successful GOP nominee has ever lost the Palmetto State.
The best news for Huntsman may be that Huckabee’s former South Carolina campaign director, Mike Campbell, has just signed on to help him. Campbell, the son of former South Carolina Gov. Cambell, helped power Huckabee to a strong second-place finish in South Carolina in 2008. He’s the second top GOP state campaign operative to sign on with Huntsman. Another, Wally Stickney, who played a critical role on behalf of Mitt Romney in New Hampshire in 2008, has also bolted to Huntsman, bolstering his chances in the Granite State.
Just two more signs that Romney, though still considered the presumptive GOP front-runner, has failed to close the deal with the party rank-and-file. Too bad for him Huckabee didn’t stick around.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org