With Mike Huckabee out, which GOP presidential hopefuls benefit?

Mike Huckabee’s exit from the 2012 presidential race continues the inevitable winnowing process. Will others like Mitch Daniels or Jon Huntsman be tempted to jump in? Will social conservatives like Michele Bachmann benefit the most? And what about the tea party?

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced on his Fox News show Saturday night that he would not seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, adding uncertainty to the race to pick a challenger to President Obama.

Mike Huckabee’s exit from the 2012 presidential race continues the inevitable winnowing process among likely and talked about challengers to President Obama’s billion-dollar reelection effort.

So who among the field of possible GOP White House prospects is helped by Mr. Huckabee’s decision not to run?

Some already have announced their decision not to jump into the race – Haley Barbour, Mike Pence, and John Thune. Others who once (or briefly) enjoyed high expectations – Sarah Palin and Donald Trump – are down in the polls, marked by image problems and seen by most observers as without much of a chance of winning the nomination.

Huckabee’s decision could tempt the fence-sitting Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or perhaps former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Or it may cause them to take a harder look at the reasons not to run – especially the cost to family of a year spent on the road and under constant personal scrutiny.

As moderates, Governor Daniels and Mr. Huntsman might expect to have a tough fight in Iowa and South Carolina – early nominating states where Huckabee did very well in 2008, and where social conservatives will have much to say about who succeeds in the race’s first days.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been playing up his social conservative chops; Rep. Michele Bachmann already has them. Former Sen. Rick Santorum does, too, although his connection to the John Ensign sex scandal – however tenuous – won’t help. Newt Gingrich is dogged by past marital infidelities.

What about the tea party? Does Huckabee’s exit have any bearing on that movement’s influence in 2012?

There’s always Ron Paul, of course. But Michele Bachmann could benefit there as well.

“Bachmann is the darling of the Tea Party crowd as well as a strong social conservative,” writes Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine.

“While most pundits and party insiders consider her politics too extreme and her personality too over the top to be nominated, let alone elected, her outsider status as well as her religious frame of reference is the closest match to Huckabee’s 2008 profile,” writes Tobin. “With evangelicals having a disproportionate impact on the Iowa caucuses, Bachmann is the potential candidate best positioned to benefit from Huckabee’s absence.”

Mitt Romney – the closest thing to a Republican establishment candidate today – could see his prospects improving with Huckabee out of the race. Except Huckabee gives no sign that he’ll cease the sharp criticism of Mr. Romney he’s voiced over the former Massachusetts governor’s record on government-mandated health care insurance.

“If our goal in health-care reform is better care at lower cost, then we should take a lesson from RomneyCare, which shows that socialized medicine does not work. Period,” Huckabee wrote in his latest book, “A Simple Government.”

In announcing his decision not run on his Fox News show Saturday night, Huckabee took another jab at Romney on the subject. And unlike Huntsman, Gingrich, Pawlenty, and Santorum, Romney did not rush to say nice things about Huckabee.

Huckabee had many reasons to run: widespread public support reflected in the popularity of his broadcast endeavors and the sales of his books, which have made him a millionaire; a strong showing in regional and national polls; demonstrated ability to raise political funds and attract veteran campaign advisers; encouragement from his wife and children.

But in the end, the Southern Baptist minister says he went into the closet of prayer to find his answer.

“For me, the decision is ultimately not a political one, a financial one, or even a practical one – it’s a spiritual one,” he explained in a statement Saturday night.

“When I am with people encouraging me to run, it’s easy to feel the strength of their partnership and commitment to help me to the finish line,” he said. “Only when I was alone, in quiet and reflective moments did I have not only clarity, but an inexplicable inner peace – a peace that exceeds human understanding. All the factors say GO, but my heart says NO.”

Then too, the financial risks would have been considerable.

Huckabee would have been required to give up his lucrative Fox News gig, as did Santorum and Gingrich. (There are rumors that Huckabee might replace the departing Glenn Beck.) After an early life of financial struggle, he’s been able to relocate from Arkansas to Florida, where he’s building a $2.2 million home.

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