Huckabee emerges as unlikely Romney ally, by default

Some in Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign think Mike Huckabee deliberately torpedoed any shot that the former Massachusetts governor had at the GOP nomination three years ago.

In 2012, however, Huckabee may prove to be one of Romney’s biggest assets.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entrance into the 2012 presidential race has turned the one-time political enemies into frenemies (Best. Term. Ever.) — as Huckabee has emerged as perhaps Perry’s most high-profile detractor to date.

Those close to the situation say it’s clear that the former Arkansas governor’s distaste toward Perry outweighs whatever ill will he still has for Romney.

In recent months, Huckabee has cast Perry as a convert to “hyper-conservatism,” attacked his stance on Social Security, criticized the timing of his presidential announcement, which came on the same day as the Ames Straw Poll, said Democrats will be able to make Perry into the next coming of George W. Bush , and called Romney the more electable candidate.

In fairness, Huckabee has still been critical of Romney — particularly for the health care bill he spearheaded as Massachusetts governor — but that criticism has been notably more muted than the attacks Huckabee has lodged against Perry. (Huckabee has said that the healthcare legislation doesn’t disqualify Romney outright.)

Those close to the situation say the feud between Huckabee and Perry dates back to the 2008 race, when Perry opted to endorse former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani rather than Huckabee — an endorsement that Huckabee had been banking on.

When Giuliani flamed out early, Perry not only passed over Huckabee (again) but backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then went so far as to urge Huckabee to drop out of the race.

“Governor Huckabee was very upset when Perry endorsed Rudy,” said a source familiar with the situation. “And then after Rudy dropped out, McCain.”

Despite Perry’s urging for Huckabee to exit stage right, many strategists saw his presence in the race as helping McCain because it split the anti-McCain vote between he and Romney.Romney backers publicly complained about Huckabee’s so-called “spoiler” role and Huckabee was quick to respond. “Romney’s arrogance is offensive to my supporters and serves only to fire them and me up,” he said at the time. “We’re even more determined to fight and win.”

That kind of angry attack on Romney is notably absent from Huckabee’s punditry these days.

In the end, Huckabee’s willingness to rhetorically battle with Perry is an extremely helpful development for Romney. While Huckabee may not endorse him any time soon, the former Arkansas governor’s role as an anti-Perry pitbull could cause severe problems for Perry.

Huckabee is one of the — if not the — most respected voices in the social conservative community. He also pulls from a lot of the same constituencies as Perry, and if he’s criticizing the Texas governor, it could lead to further questioning of Perry’s conservative bona fides.

Which is all to the good for Romney.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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