Mike Huckabee
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks about his new book at the National Press Club in Washington. Huckabee's decision to forgo a shot at the presidency further muddies the field for a worthy Republican challenger to President Barack Obama.
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updated 5/19/2011 8:56:11 AM ET 2011-05-19T12:56:11

No single candidate stands ready to fill the gap that Mike Huckabee leaves in the 2012 Republican field for president, and those who do benefit may bear little resemblance to the former Arkansas governor and one-time Baptist minister who was favored by evangelical conservatives.

Party operatives say the opportunity now may be even greater for a Republican with stature as a budget cutter.

Story: Huckabee says he won't run for president in 2012

"I think it gives momentum, if not to Mitt Romney, then maybe Mitch Daniels," said Bob Vander Plaats, a leader of Iowa social conservatives who was a top Huckabee supporter in the 2008 campaign. Romney and Daniels would run — if they decide to — on their economic records.

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Story: Romney has it all — except GOP stalwart support

Huckabee's decision clearly is sending ripples through the emerging field.

A Gallup poll published Tuesday showed Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich picking up some support among Republican voters since Huckabee announced Saturday he wouldn't be a candidate.

Huckabee decision leaves void in 2012 GOP field

Filling the void
However, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a social conservative active in the movement to ban gay marriage, has seemed to go hardest after key Huckabee constituencies in Iowa. Early polls had shown that Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, was the favorite for 2012.

Bachmann landed one of Huckabee's top Iowa campaign advisers; she also has met with groups of evangelical pastors and headlined a Christian home-school conference here. Pastors and home-school advocates, both elements of Iowa's Christian conservative base, were key to Huckabee's 2008 Iowa coalition.

Story: Rep. Bachmann: Always rising, never compromising

A darling of the Tea Party, Bachmann said her decision about a run could come earlier than her planned June deadline.

"Our phones have been ringing off the hook, our Facebook has been lit up, our donations are pouring in," she said on Fox News Channel after Huckabee's announcement.

In South Carolina, where Huckabee finished second in 2008, his former state campaign chairman, Mike Campbell, announced he would back Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China and ex-governor of Utah.

The political differences couldn't be starker: Huckabee is a favorite among social conservatives for his opposition to gay marriage and abortion. Huntsman, who is Mormon, has taken moderate positions on environmental issues and has supported civil unions for same-sex couples.

But Campbell noted Huntsman's foreign policy experience and his articulate speaking style, which may help in a race against President Barack Obama.

Others also can rightfully claim pieces of Huckabee's support network.

GOP hopeful Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, educated some of his children at home, providing a link to home-school advocates. Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who supported home-school rights during his tenure in office, spoke at a national home-school conference in San Jose, Calif., this year.

"Any number of these candidates could expect a share of the support from Christian home-school voters," said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, whose endorsement of Huckabee was influential in the last nomination race.

Huckabee backers splinter
Early indications point to Huckabee's backers splintering among several candidates, leaving a wide-open race even more scrambled, though there's a clearer picture of just who will — and who won't — seek the GOP nomination.

Story: Special report: Stuck between the Tea Party and a hard place

"The Huckabee voter is up for grabs. I don't think one particular candidate is going to get that voter," said former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a Huckabee backer in 2008 who has talked to Huntsman but hasn't decided who to support.

In South Carolina, Huckabee's network of backers doesn't appear to be in a rush to find an alternative.

"With a field so wide open, I think they're going to take a wait-and-see approach," said Chad Connelly, state GOP chairman. "I don't see them scrambling to anywhere in particular."

Dave Davidson in Des Moines sure isn't.

"There are other candidates that excite me, but I'm not sure where to go next," said Davidson, the co-host of a weekly online radio show aimed at Huckabee supporters. He singled out Rep. Ron Paul, businessman Herman Cain and Bachmann as hopefuls he likes.

But it could be others still, like Daniels, the Indiana governor who touts his fiscal skills and record. Even in states where social conservatives have clout, the recession and state budget crisis have increased the appeal of candidates with special expertise handling budgets in hard times.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

"Social issues are important, but if our economy fails, we all lose," said Susan Geddes, a Huckabee backer in Iowa who is undecided in the 2012 race.

There is "an opportunity for a mainstream Republican to capture enough support to surprise everyone here," said Doug Gross, a GOP activist in Iowa.

Huckabee's 2008 campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, said Huckabee won in Iowa in 2008 because he inspired social conservatives.

"There will be somebody that will come in this time and will inspire a whole new constituency," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

Video: Who can lead the GOP in 2012?

  1. Closed captioning of: Who can lead the GOP in 2012?

    >>> underwhelmed by a presumed front run, mitt romney , many establishment republicans are staying uncommitted, engaged in a public search for an alternative, as they say in trying to find a candidate. alex burns joins us now. what is your reporting telling you about mitch daniels , whether or not he'll do it and the search for trying to get chris christie to get in the race?

    >> sure. governor daniels just yesterday said he is getting close to a decision. and news comes today he's headed to tennessee next month to headline a big fund-raising dinner for the state party. he's acting a little more like a candidate than he was a couple of weeks ago when the state legislature was in session but remains a question mark . chris christie , who wyou also mentioned, insists he won't run this time. but he doesn't seem to have 100% shut the door from folks from iowa who are coming to trenten to meet with him later this month.

    >> what about jon huntsman . there is a report he'll open his campaign headquarters in orlando, florida , his wife's home, but florida , florida , florida , is such a critical state .

    >> it sure is. not just in the general election this time around. florida republicans have -- are determined to go fifth in the primary process. so for a candidate like huntsman, who does very, very well in new hampshire, scoring another win in florida , it is sort of a critical part of that strategy. that's a big part of the reason it would seem he would choose florida as a place to base his campaign.

    >> does that sort of pass the laugh test? there is no connection other than his wife's family between jon huntsman from utah and florida .

    >> well --

    >> it seems too opportunistic.

    >> this is one of the challenges for huntsman in general. he's not basing his campaign in utah. he personally is now liveing in washington, d.c. his kwcampaign was looking at charlotte. for a candidate who is a blank slate for republicans, that's not a bad metaphor.

    >> thank you very much.

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