Why Huckabee’s decision not to run is good for the GOP

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Thank God, Mike Huckabee isn’t going to run for president again. He’s a terrific presence, a family values champion, and at times a voice for reason on issues on which conservatives too often find themselves stuck. But let’s be blunt: the GOP establishment hated him and Tea Party conservatives didn’t trust him. So his presence in the field, though a rallying point for Christian conservatives, especially evangelicals, was destined to prove divisive overall.

In fact, prior to his abrupt pullout last weekend, the GOP presidential field was starting to resemble its 2008 predecessor, spelling disaster for Republican efforts to unseat Obama in 2012.

In the last presidential race, the GOP became split between an establishment favorite with “suspect” conservative credentials (McCain) and two more “authentically” conservative figures — first, Mitt Romney, and later, Huckabee.

Huckabee emerged because Romney failed to captivate the party’s evangelical voters, in part because of his devout Mormonism, though many religious leaders, evangelical and Mormon, are still loathe to admit that fact, which is borne out by numerous polls.

Economic conservatives, including libertarians, distrusted the former Arkansas governor because he was not averse to government activism in the economy and he seemed “soft” on tax cuts.

With the recent ascendance of the Tea Party, Huckabee’s chances of appeasing those economic conservatives dwindled even further.

Party establishment types, meanwhile, saw Huckabee as little more than a preachy ex-pastor and religious “yahoo.” Sadly, perhaps, his emergence since 2008 as a genial talk show host with strong polling support among independent voters, especially women, had done little to dim that view.

With Huckabee in the field, rallying evangelicals, as he surely would have, the party was destined to see disputes between “economic” and “social” conservatives inflamed, weakening its ability to exploit Obama’s persistent vulnerabilities.

In the short term, the biggest beneficiary of Huck’s withdrawal is likely to be Tim Pawlenty. The former Minnesota governor has worked on developing a strong base in Iowa for most of the past year. Even so, Huckabee was almost certain to have won the Iowa straw poll in August and next year’s Iowa caucuses, where his victory in 2008 first catapulted him into contention.

Now Pawlenty, who desperately needs a win in Iowa to maintain a viable candidacy, is well positioned to advance — but so are other candidates.

Rep. Michele Bachmann is one of those candidates. Like Pawlenty, Bachmann, who was born in Iowa, needs to win the Hawkeye State to stay politically viable. The difference between Bachmann and Pawlenty is that Bachmann is a polarizing figure, even within the GOP, and probably can’t break out of the insurgent Tea Party orbit to claim broader voting support.

But Pawlenty is less easy to pigeon-hole. Even the GOP establishment could eventually find itself rallying around the comparatively colorless Pawlenty as a kind of “least-of-all-evils” choice acceptable to all factions. Huckabee’s exit will surely give his campaign important new space to maneuver, at least in Iowa.

Jon Huntsman, the former two-term Utah governor who’s a “dark horse” favorite with much of the GOP establishment, also stands to benefit mightily from Huck’s departure. Evangelical voters may not like Huntsman’s support for gay civil unions, but he’s one of the staunchest pro-life candidates running, and his political record in conservative Utah, where he lowered taxes significantly, is impeccable.

But unlike Pawlenty, Huckabee’s pullout doesn’t help Huntsman in Iowa — where he barely registers — but in South Carolina, the state that’s best known for making or breaking a GOP nominee.

Had he chosen to run, Huckabee would have made a major push in South Carolina. And with Romney largely skipping South Carolina, and banking instead on Florida, Huntsman now has a shot at taking charge in the Palmetto State.

Huntsman recently gave a well-received commencement address in South Carolina, and rumor has it, he’s already won the unofficial endorsement of the state’s new Indian-American governor, Nikki Haley, which also offers him an early bridge to the Tea Party that backed Haley’s candidacy.

And there’s more good news for Huntsman: Huckabee’s former South Carolina campaign director, Mike Campbell, has just signed on to help the former Utah governor.

Ironically, the biggest loser from Huckabee’s pullout may be none other than former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the party’s nominal heir apparent, who faced a persistent challenge from Huckabee in 2008 and who was running largely neck-and-neck with the former Arkansas governor in most early polls.

As long as the race was another Romney-Huckabee shoot-out, Romney stood to gain from the fact that Huckabee, while captivating Christian conservatives, couldn’t really contest Romney for the allegiance of other party constituencies. And with substantial political and funding support already lined up, Romney was also well positioned to squeeze out a third, more moderate GOP establishment candidate — like Huntsman or Indian Governor Mitch Daniels, who’s still contemplating a run.

But Huckabee’s departure changes Romney’s convenient calculus. With Huckabee’s base suddenly free to look elsewhere, strong candidates like Huntsman or Pawlenty have an opportunity to make new inroads while also contesting Romney for support among non-evangelical voters — everyone from the Tea Party, which abhors “RomneyCare,” to GOP moderates who distrust his persistent flip-flopping.

It’s not clear if any of the current GOP candidates, including Romney, who until recently was polling well against Obama, has what it takes to contest a powerful and resurgently popular incumbent. For some, Huckabee’s decision is just the latest sign of a weak and fragmented Republican field that can’t seem to find a viable 2012 challenger.

But in fact, with Huckabee now gone, the GOP is less likely to recycle past political and personality conflicts and to get bogged down in distracting ideological polemics. It’s freer to find and rally around a truly inspiring and unifying candidate — in fact, one that may not even be on the horizon just yet. And that’s a huge plus.

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.