Image: Mike Huckabee
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would have been a serious contender for the party nod with instant support among Christian evangelicals who dominate the Iowa caucuses and the early South Carolina primary.
msnbc.com news services
updated 5/15/2011 7:45:58 AM ET 2011-05-15T11:45:58

Mike Huckabee's decision to forgo a shot at the presidency further muddies the field for a worthy Republican challenger to President Barack Obama, and leaves America's social conservatives without a clear candidate to throw their support behind.

Huckabee on Saturday night became the latest Republican to opt out of running, declaring that he would stick with his lucrative career as a television and radio personality over a race that promises to be both costly and caustic. By joining Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence on the sidelines, the former Arkansas governor underlined that for all of Obama's vulnerabilities on the economy, taking on his re-election machine and potential $1 billion treasure chest remains a daunting task.

Huckabee: 'My heart says no' to 2012 run

The 55-year-old Baptist minister insisted that he could have captured the GOP nomination, citing polls that showed he could score strong even in the Northeast and among the less conservative rank-and-file party members. "All the factors say go, but my heart says no," Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, said on his Fox News Channel show.

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The announcement makes an already wide-open Republican field even more unpredictable.

Huckabee is a prominent conservative who would have been a serious contender for the party nod with instant support among Christian evangelicals who dominate the Iowa caucuses and the early South Carolina primary. And with him out of the race, there is no clear candidate out there to for them to rally around.

Onetime House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been making a concerted effort to reach out to the right. Although he's been noting his recent conversion to Catholicism, he's hampered by two divorces and an adulterous history. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney must explain his change of heart over the years on positions on guns, gay rights and abortion; health care also is a problem for him. Minnesota's ex-governor, Tim Pawlenty, has had to apologize for backing climate change legislation. Donald Trump? Highly unlikely.

Story: Gingrich: 2012 election biggest since Lincoln in 1860

With so many social conservatives looking for a home, the void could prompt 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to get in the race. Palin has yet to say if she will run, while Bachmann is inching toward a bid. Several other possible candidates, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, are in waiting mode.

The lack of a clear GOP frontrunner reflects Obama's perceived strength as a candidate less than a year-and-a-half before the election. Despite uneven economic growth and continued sluggishness in the employment market, Obama will have the advantage of being an incumbent president with a seemingly unmatchable capacity to generate cash for his campaign. And while events could change dramatically between now and the presidential vote, polls show Obama in a stronger position now than he was before the mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Obama was far ahead of all possible Republican candidates mentioned in a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week.

Story: Obama way ahead of Republicans for 2012 election

Wednesday's Reuters/Ipsos survey showed 45 percent of Americans believed Obama would win re-election, a 10-point rise from a poll taken before November's congressional elections.

Obama lead Huckabee by 51 percent to 39 percent, and Romney by 51 percent to 38 percent Republican candidates were quick to praise Huckabee after his announcement, making obvious plays for his backers.

"Had Gov. Huckabee decided to run, there is no question he would have been a frontrunner in the 2012 campaign for president," Gingrich said. He said Huckabee "will remain a major force for conservatism and he will play a major role in shaping America's future."

Video: Pool of 2012 GOP hopefuls growing (on this page)

Pawlenty said he'd work hard to gain the support of millions of Americans who have backed Huckabee, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum praised the TV host for praying before deciding not to run. Santorum added that he wanted to talk with Huckabee about fighting for traditional values even as some Republicans "seek to form a 'truce' on social issues."

That was a slap at Daniels, who is considering a run and has suggested that Republicans downplay their focus on cultural issues like abortion while the nation's economy is so fragile.

'Inner peace'
Huckabee said the past few months have been times of deep personal reflection, even as he noted that he was leading some national polls. He painted the decision as a spiritual one.

"Only when I was alone, in quiet and reflective moments, did I have not only clarity but an inexplicable inner peace," he said. "Being president is a job that takes one to the limit of his or her human capacity. For me, to do it apart from the inner confidence that I was undertaking it without God's full blessing is simply unthinkable."

Story: Tea Party godfather Ron Paul declares 2012 bid

Had he chosen to run, Huckabee would have been forced to give up the lucrative media career he's enjoyed since his unsuccessful presidential bid four years ago. In addition to his TV show, Huckabee hosts a nationally syndicated radio program, gives paid speeches around the country and has even launched a series of animated videos for children on American history.

The former governor said that raising the necessary cash to run for president wasn't an issue in his decision, though it may play a major part for others. One candidate who wouldn't have that problem is Trump, the billionaire real estate tycoon and reality TV star who's been toying with the idea of a Republican run.

"Mike, enjoy the show," Trump said in an on-air message on Fox, directly after Huckabee's announcement. "Your ratings are terrific. You're making a lot of money. You're building a beautiful house in Florida. Good luck."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Pool of 2012 GOP hopefuls growing

  1. Closed captioning of: Pool of 2012 GOP hopefuls growing

    >>> politics where the pool of exon tenders widened. one more republican threw his hat in the ring. the other is expected to make an announcement today. john harwood is the chief correspondent. he joins us from washington. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >>> good week for republicans gearing up to 2012 . ron paul launching the third bid for the white house . newt gingrich making his first bid for the white house . mitt romney continuing to defend his health reform , his approach to health care . what do you make of this early batch of candidates?

    >> it's not complete yet. we're waiting to hear from mitch daniels , the governor of indiana , who might be the most competitive republican candidate of all. he hasn't decided yet. but we're seeing an unsettled field. republicans are unsure whether it's worth it to challenge president obama with a weak economy, he has some vulnerability. but this is a field without a front-runner. mitt romney is the closest thing we had to that. but we saw it in the health care speech he gave the other day that he has clear explaining to do for a central domestic policy initiative that looks like president obama 's.

    >> meanwhile, mike huckabee is expected to make an announcement later today about whether or not to run for president. a lot of people think he'll make an announcement that he will not run. what do you say?

    >> ed raw lins ran his campaign as the strategist four years ago, that he doesn't expect mike huckabee to run. he's got a job on the fox network hosting. he's making a lot of money giving speeches. mike huckabee is somebody who could be formidable in this race. he's got a lot of support from social conservatives . business conservatives don't like him too much because pof the record in arkansas. he raised taxes too much, they think. if he's so comfortable in his life after politics that he doesn't want to juch back in. ed rawlings thinks it's exactly the decision he'll make today.

    >> indiana governor mitch daniels , an interesting situation this week where we have the former first lady, laura bush calling daniels ' wife sherry to encourage her to support a presidential bid for her husband. what is this gop push for daniels say about the republican party so far?

    >> they're looking for somebody in the party to survive the primary process and take on president obama . mitch daniels someone with a record of fiscal conservatism, and george bush attacked him when we went to surplus to deficits as a result of the bush tax cuts . he's a fresh face, a gubernatorial record. but he's got real family reservations. i talked to people close to mitch daniels . they think it's more likely than not that he's going to run. but real reservations from his wife and children. we don't know -- nobody knows how that decision will come out yet.

    >> which candidate has the most to lose if daniels does jump in.

    >> mitt romney . mitt romney is more likely than not in this republican field right now, you probably have two people who have a real shot at being both nominated and elected. that's mitt romney and tim pawlenty . newt gingrich has a low ceiling of support. a lot of people don't know him and don't like him. if mitch daniels got in his face, that's a real threat to the other two candidates because he's somebody that doesn't have the same kind of baggage that other candidates have. he could rally a lot of the bush forces behind him. a lot of the bush political strategists believe he would be the strongest candidate. the question is, does he have the commitment and the determination and the consent from his family to do that?

    >> starting to get interesting. john harwood , thanks as always.

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