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Huckabee exit an opportunity for those unlike him

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.
Mike Huckabee
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.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

"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.