On Saturday night, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee confirmed what most of the political world had long suspected: He will not be running for president in 2012.
Although he would have been something short of a clear Republican front-runner had he entered the contest, he was still a well-known and well-liked figure whose decision not to enter the race leaves a major void.
Nature and politics abhor a vacuum, so the candidates will quickly move to fill the space left by Huckabee. Before they do, let’s take a look at the winners and losers from Huckabee’s no-go announcement.
l Michele Bachmann: With Huckabee out of the race, the Minnesota congresswoman would be the best-known social conservative in the contest. (Bachmann has not formally announced but is expected to run.) Given the power that social conservatives hold in the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary — two of the first four nominating contests — emerging as the preferred candidate of that group would give Bachmann a real foothold in the race. The one complicating factor for her as she seeks to consolidate social conservatives? Sarah Palin. If the former Alaska governor runs, her celebrity could overshadow even Bachmann.
l Iowa: Huckabee’s victory in Iowa in the 2008 presidential contest and his continued strong support in the state would have made him a heavy favorite in next year’s caucuses. It also would have given candidates already looking for a way to skip Iowa or play down the state’s influence on the nominating fight a ready-made excuse. (Mitt Romney, we are looking at you.) Now Iowa is wide open, and that means that winning or overperforming/underperforming expectations will matter in the broader race. That should work to former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s benefit since he is building a serious organization already in the state.
l Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor’s path to the nomination will be inconceivable without a win in New Hampshire or South Carolina. With Romney looking like a solid front-runner in the Granite State, a Huckabee candidacy would have made Huntsman’s South Carolina calculus that much more difficult. Although former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgian, is likely to make the “son of the South” argument, it’s not clear how much traction he will get. Huntsman’s window of opportunity is now very much open in the Palmetto State.
l Fox News Channel: Not only did Huckabee’s “very important announcement” almost certainly provide a major boost to the show’s ratings, but Fox is now largely free of the problems caused by having potential presidential candidates on its payroll. (The network terminated the contracts of Gingrich and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania this month.) And, with Huckabee staying out of the race, Fox won’t have to fill the hour of Saturday-night airtime he currently occupies. Win, win, win.
l Huckabee loyalists: For the past several years, a small group of Huckabee allies defended him from attacks on his seriousness and questions about his ability to raise money while waiting patiently for him to make up his mind about 2012. And then, when it came time to decide, Huckabee largely cut those people out — leaving them to wait and wonder along with everyone else. Ed Rollins, who was a senior adviser for Huckabee’s 2008 campaign, summed up the sentiment nicely: “Whatever,” he told Politico’s Maggie Haberman. “Wish him well.”
l Social conservatives: Huckabee was, without question, the socially conservative candidate with the best chance of winding up as the party’s nominee. Although Palin and Bachmann — not to mention pizza magnate Herman Cain — would be attractive to social conservatives, each of them has major electability issues. That means that social conservatives could be faced with voting their conscience or supporting someone they think can win — not an ideal set of choices.
l Humor: Whatever else you think of Huckabee, the guy has a sense of humor — about himself and politics. With him not running, the entertainment factor is going to go way down. It’s kind of hard to imagine any other candidate in the field jamming with Ted Nugent to “Cat Scratch Fever.” Of course, that might be a good thing.