The GOP needs Mike Huckabee in 2012

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Whether we choose to pay attention or not, poll after poll continues to indicate that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is in fact the Republican 2012 presidential frontrunner, even with the current TMZ-like fetish for all things Donald Trump. As Politico’s Andy Barr recently observed, “Poll the early primary states, and the former Arkansas governor is winning. Match up any of the 2012 [GOP] contenders with President Barack Obama, and Huckabee usually runs strongest.” So why is this bad news for voters hoping to change the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2012?

Recall, if you will, the man who took too long to decide in 2008. Like Fred Thompson, Huckabee appears to be content to sit on the fence and drag out his decision to enter the race. As a strategy, it didn’t pan out well for Thompson. There is no indication that a slow mosey into a campaign will work any better for Huckabee in 2012.

Running for president is a serious consideration that no one should take lightly. Having run a full-fledged presidential campaign in 2008, Huckabee knows better than most the stress and strain of the primary campaign trail. It’s a road that is considerably less cushy than his current perch at Fox News. Still, the Republican Party needs Huckabee to enter the race and run a savvy campaign if the GOP wants to have a realistic shot at locking President Obama out of the White House.

The 2012 presidential contest will turn largely on voters’ emotional perception of President Obama’s performance in the months leading up to the election. The GOP’s challenge is to nominate a candidate who can excite both base conservatives and independents as a credible alternative to an incumbent president who will likely be struggling against four years of lackluster economic results and persistent consumer anxiety.

The current field of GOP presidential candidates is not generating much enthusiasm among conservative or independent voters. Huckabee can change this dynamic. As Barr puts it, Huckabee’s potential appeal is his combination of a “nonthreatening persona,” “sunny demeanor,” and “placement…at the intersection of conservative politics, media and faith.”

Huckabee is far from a sure thing to win the Republican presidential nomination next year. It’s even less certain he would beat President Obama even if he did secure his party’s nomination. Regardless, the 2012 GOP presidential field needs a serious jumpstart, and Huckabee may be just the person to inject life into the Republican conversation. His participation would bring a broader coalition into the GOP tent to liven up the party and make the current crop of candidates that much stronger as a result.

Aside from his drawn-out decision process, Huckabee’s biggest challenge is his perceived weakness in fundraising. If he chooses to hop off the fence, Huckabee needs to get a top-flight fundraising and political team in place quickly. Otherwise, he will be overpowered at every step of the GOP presidential nomination process. Unfortunately, an early flameout by an underfinanced Huckabee campaign could deflate the excitement of a large swath of the conservative base that the Republicans will need at the polls on Election Day if they are to have a realistic hope of changing the occupant of the White House.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are co-founders of CivicForumPAC and advisors to conservative candidates on Internet outreach, communications and campaign strategy.