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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News
By Perry Bacon Jr.

Mike Huckabee ran an outstanding presidential campaign in 2008. He entered the Republican primary race as a barely-known former Arkansas governor with little support from key GOP officials or major donors. By the end, Huckabee had won the very competitive Iowa caucuses, carried seven other states and essentially finished tied for second in the primary with Mitt Romney, as Arizona Sen. John McCain became the Republican nominee.

But in that race, Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, struggled to win voters outside of his base of conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians and states in the South and Midwest where those two blocs make up a plurality of the electorate. In more moderate states like Florida, New York and New Hampshire, Huckabee was far behind both Romney and McCain, getting just 11 percent in the Granite State after winning Iowa a week earlier. Key Republican officials and other party leaders viewed Huckabee as a flawed candidate for the general election and refused to back him, complicating his chances of winning.

Seven years later as he announces his second presidential bid, Huckabee faces the same barriers he did in 2008, making him a very long shot to win the Republican nomination in 2016. The Republican donors and elected officials who were resistant to Huckabee in 2008 haven’t changed their minds about him and are already lining up behind other candidates, particularly ex-Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

And Huckabee may struggle to even match his 2008 performance, because this time the Republican field is full of other candidates who are strongly opposed to abortion rights and gay marriage and speak eloquently about their personal faith like Huckabee.

With Huckabee off the ballot in 2012, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum won many of the states Huckabee did, including Iowa. Santorum is expected to run again. There are some early indications that people who voted for Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012 will lean to the former Arkansas governor if forced to make a choice.

But Santorum is a formidable challenger to Huckabee for the Christian conservative vote. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, is deeply conservative and religious and his backers have already organized supporters in all 99 of Iowa’s counties. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal could compete strongly in southern states that Huckabee won in 2008.

There are two sons of pastors in the race as well, Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Walker and Cruz are making the same case to evangelical voters: they are deeply conservative but can win the primary and potentially the general election. This is a big problem for Huckabee: he has already lost one Republican primary and showed himself unable to expand his base of support. Christian conservatives may opt to try someone different and see if that person can emerge as the GOP nominee.

Bob Vander Plaats, who was Huckabee’s Iowa chair in 2008, backed Santorum in 2012 and has repeatedly praised Cruz over the last year. He seems to exploring the possibility of backing another candidate instead of returning to Huckabee.

How can Huckabee win? In 2008, Huckabee won Iowa over Romney by 9 percent, while Santorum won by less than 1 percent in 2012. Huckabee ran in a strong field in 2008 and repeatedly won primaries. So there is some evidence that Huckabee is a good politician who is able to develop a core of intense supporters.

And his tenure as a Fox News host between campaigns has allowed Huckabee both to remain a familiar figure to grassroots conservatives and publicly attack President Obama on nearly every issue.

It will be difficult, but Huckabee could win again in states like Iowa and Georgia. He finished a close second in South Carolina in 2008, but with even more candidates in the field, he could perhaps win a splintered primary there. A group of Southern states are planning to hold a primary on March 1, and Huckabee is well-positioned in that region.

The core problem though is the same: Huckabee is poorly-positioned to win voters outside of Christian conservatives.

And the gap between Republican moderate voters and Huckabee is likely to grow during the campaign. To hold onto Christian conservatives against Cruz and others, Huckabee will likely be forced to play up his credentials on social issues. In particular, he may opt to emphasize his opposition to gay marriage and his belief that Christian businesses should not be required to provide services as part of same-sex weddings.

Republican moderate voters in New Hampshire and Florida will not be looking to back such a candidate.

Huckabee is aware of this challenge. And to broaden his base, he is trying to run as a populist Republican on economic issues, looking to court working and middle-class voters who are weary of the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of America. Huckabee has expressed doubts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade deal that both the Obama administration and most Republicans in Congress support.

Last month, when New Jersey governor and 2016 hopeful Chris Christie proposed raising the age at which people can start receiving Social Security benefits from 62 to 64, Huckabee blasted the plan as being unfair to the elderly.

Polls suggest that most voters oppose raising the retirement age, and there is deep skepticism on the right and left about these trade agreements.

But in a Republican primary, it’s not clear populism works. Huckabee will be cast by his opponents as being too liberal, as his stances on these issues align him closer to Elizabeth Warren than Rush Limbaugh.

In 2012, Santorum tried to run as a populist, and Romney still kept winning the moderate Republican vote.