If there’s one place where Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run for president matters most, it’s Iowa.
In 2008, his surprise victory in the first-in-the-nation caucus established the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher as a force to be reckoned with; more than four years later, he still has a reservoir of goodwill among Iowans. A Neighborhood Research poll of 319 likely caucus-goers released last month showed him leading with 21 percent.
Without Huckabee in the race, the state that frequently serves as a catalyst to the nomination is very much in play. At a press conference Monday, just before celebrity businessman Donald Trump became the latest potential contender to bow out of the race for the Republican nomination, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds hinted that it's time for candidates to start showing up in the state.
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"I want to welcome all current and potential 2012 presidential candidates to campaign here," Branstad said. Added Reynolds: "This is not a state where you only send mailers, run ads, and expect to win. It takes time to visit our communities."
Branstad emphasized that the race is "wide open"--and that's especially true after Huckabee's exit from the field. “From a caucus point of view, Huckabee’s decision is an earthquake,” said Doug Gross, a former chief of staff to Branstad who backed Mitt Romney in 2008. “He continued to have a following here and a message that sold well. It means this is an absolutely wide-open race. Anything can happen.”
A volunteer army of Christian churchgoers and homeschoolers helped Huckabee prove on January 3, 2008, that grassroots could still trump money, at least in Iowa. As the 2012 field begins to settle, no one candidate can lay claim to the mantle of social conservatives. Huckabee’s endorsement will be heavily coveted in a state where 60 percent of the caucus-goers in 2008 described themselves as evangelical.
“He opens up that entire base of support, and everyone is going to make a play for it,” said Bob Vander Plaats, Huckabee’s former campaign chairman in Iowa and one of the state’s leading religious conservatives. “Right now, I don’t see one specific candidate for people to coalesce around.”
Among the potential beneficiaries of Huckabee’s exit are lesser-known candidates, such as Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney’s previous support for abortion rights and Newt Gingrich’s three marriages make them less obvious choices for Christian conservatives. Mitch Daniels and Jon Huntsman are not expected to emphasize social issues if they decide to run.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, an Iowa native and a critic of Planned Parenthood, spoke last month to a group of pastors in West Des Moines who heavily favored Huckabee in 2008. She is expected to make a decision on a White House bid in June.
“If Huckabee announces that he's out, I do think it opens the door wider for Michele,” said Rep. Steve King, one of her biggest supporters in Iowa. “The evangelical support that may be waiting in the wings for Huckabee could move in her direction.”
Money always loomed as Huckabee's biggest challenge. His political action committee, Huck PAC, raised $1.8 million in the 2010 election cycle and spent almost all of it (with a number of contributions going to candidates in Iowa). He ended the year with $137,660 in his treasury. Sarah Palin’s SarahPAC, by contrast, raised $5.6 million over the same period and closed 2010 with $1.3 million. Mitt Romney's Free & Strong America PAC raised $9.1 million in the 2010 election cycle and ended the year with $796,208.
Although the 2012 election is a distant thought for most voters, Iowa’s famed Ames straw poll is only three months away. The caucus is tentatively scheduled for February.
Pawlenty campaigned on Friday and Saturday in Iowa, while Gingrich launches a 17-stop campaign swing this week. Romney is slated to make his first appearance in the state this year on May 27.
“Iowa Republicans are really ready to sink their teeth into the issues of this campaign,” said Eric Woolson, a Pawlenty adviser who ran Huckabee’s Iowa campaign in 2008. “Republicans know that Barack Obama is beatable, but there’s a lot of work to do to defeat any sitting president.”
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