Mike Huckabee's decision not to run for president starts a campaign of a different kind: the race to get his endorsement.
The former Arkansas governor, who retains a strong following among social conservatives, will be perhaps the most sought-after endorsement in the Republican Primary. His backing could be a critical boost in what is expected to be a wide-open race for the Republican nomination.
Candidates didn't waste long to praise Huckabee after his departure.
"Mike Huckabee is a friend and colleague, and an important leader within the Republican Party," said Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who could stand to benefit from Huckabee's absence in Iowa, in a statement. "Mike and I agree our nation is facing big challenges and desperately needs new leadership, and I plan to work hard to earn the support of the millions of Americans who have supported him."
In a statement, Newt Gingrich said Huckabee “emerged in 2008 as a new star for the Republican Party.”
“Had Governor Huckabee decided to run, there is no question he would have been a frontrunner in the 2012 campaign for president,” said Gingrich. He has achieved that prominence without a campaign simply based on his personal appeal and the attractiveness of his views and his character. His statement tonight emphasized the spiritual dimension of his life and his decision process. It is a wonderful example for all Americans of someone trying to do the right thing.”
Huckabee's departure could leave a void in the field for candidate's with a strong appeal to social conservatives -- a role former Pennsylvania Senator and staunch anti-abortion activist Rick Santorum could be poised to fill.
"So impressed [with] @mikehuckabee by putting the role of prayerfully following God's will as the most important factor, because it is," he tweeted minutes after Huckabee's announcement.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a tea party icon who is also considering a bid for president, staked her own claim to Huckabee's supporters in a post to her Facebook page: Huckabee's "unwavering stand for the enduring values of our nation will be missed in the upcoming Presidential campaign," she wrote, "but his absence does not change the chief goal that I know we hold in common: defeating Barack Obama."
Jon Huntsman, a former governor from Utah who is exploring a bid, said the "country has been very fortunate to have Mike Huckabee as a leader and public servant."
"It is unfortunate that we will not have his voice -- or his bass guitar -- in the presidential debate, as our party would have benefited from his involvement," he said in a statement. "Yet I'm confident that he will continue to be a positive force in the national conversation no matter his future endeavors and I look forward to his continued friendship."
Huckabee received praise even from Donald Trump, who had taped a short segment that ran immediately after the announcement praising the ex-governor.
The last 36 hours had been a whirlwind for Huckabee and his team of advisers, none more than his former campaign manager Ed Rollins. The longtime GOP strategist had been quitely laying the groundwork for Huckabee to run the last two months, but was caught off guard by news that his former client was announcing a decision Saturday night.
"I wish him well," Rollins said, in an e-mail to National Journal. "Obviously his political career is over by his own choice."
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