Signs mount that Huckabee won't enter 2012 race
Updated 2:55 p.m. Eastern Time
Mike Huckabee is running out of time to make up his mind on a 2012 presidential campaign - and the evidence is mounting that he will ultimately forgo another run at the White House.
The former Arkansas governor would enter the race as a formidable contender: Gallup found this week that he is the potential presidential candidate about whom Republicans feel most positively. And a Gallup poll last month found that Huckabee is one of just three Republicans - the other two are Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin - who have double-digit support from GOP primary voters.
One might think that Huckabee, who says he will announce a decision over the summer, would look at these numbers and conclude that he should jump headfirst into the race. But while he's openly discussing a possible run, he's sending decidedly mixed signals.
For starters: While Romney, Tim Pawlenty and other likely candidates snap up key staffers ahead of announcing their runs, Huckabee has stayed on the sidelines even as his former staffers sign on with other candidates. Chip Salzman, Huckabee's campaign manager in 2008, is now chief of staff for freshman Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), though he says he could jump ship for a Huckabee run. Cliff Hurst, Huckabee's New Hampshire co-chair, has signed on with Pawlenty; so did one of Huckabee's top operatives in Iowa in 2008, Eric Wollson. Prominent New Hampshire Republican Ruth Griffin, a high-profile Huckabee supporter in the last cycle, has come out publicly for Romney.
A New Hampshire Republican tells CBS News that "no one has heard" from Huckabee in the key early voting state. While Pawlenty, Romney, Newt Gingrich and even Rudy Giuliani are making trips to the state ahead of a potential run, Huckabee has been conspicuously absent.
And then there's the fact that Huckabee is building a $3 million beach house in Santa Rosa Beach in Florida and has registered to vote there. The decision to move his residence there - away from Arkansas income taxes - fueled speculation that Huckabee is happy with his media gigs and the money they bring. (He also may need to keep that money coming in to pay the mortgage, which the Arkansas Times says totaled $2.8 million.) He makes $500,000 per year from his gig hosting a show on Fox News and also generates earnings from his radio show and book sales; he has acknowledged that "if I run, I walk away from a pretty good income."
When Fox announced two weeks ago that it was suspending contributors Gingrich and Rick Santorum because of their likely presidential runs, the network declined to suspend Huckabee, with Fox News executive Dianne Brandi pointedly noting that Huckabee is on a book tour and adding, "his present intention is to sell books." (At left, CBS News' John Dickerson's interview with Huckabee from February.)
A book tour, of course, can double as a mini-campaign, though it's somewhat hard to know what to make of Huckabee's itinerary for his book, "A Simple Government." He has multiple stops in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation voting state that he won in 2008, catapulting him to national prominence. But he is also stopping in plenty of states that won't matter in the 2012 campaign - Tennessee, Georgia, Kansas, Texas - and, so far, skipping New Hampshire altogether.
One southern Republican source told CBS News that he can't get a good read on Huckabee's intentions. The source said that while Huckabee's travel and public comments would seem to suggest he is running, people close to him don't believe he will ultimately decide to do so.
"He's going to have to make a decision soon," Ryan Rhodes of the Iowa Tea Party said in an interview. Rhodes, who noted that some of Huckabee's top Iowa talent had already signed on with potential rivals, said he too wasn't sure whether Huckabee would ultimately enter the race.
Huckabee is so well-known at this point that he can move slowly with a presidential rollout - for one thing, he doesn't need to make himself better known to key Republicans, as Pawlenty has been working to do for more than a year. But as CBS News political consultant John Dickerson points out, there are limits to that luxury.
"He's very close to the point where his delay places him in a tight spot if he does run," he said. "He doesn't have the money and he doesn't like raising it. The GOP nominee will need to be able to raise a lot of money to run against Obama's $1 billion. Lack of aptitude on this score will matter."
Dickerson also noted that Huckabee's recent controversial comments - he erroneously suggested President Obama grew up in Kenya and suggested the president's worldview had been shaped by growing up around madrassas - point to the need for the very sort of staff he has pointedly not put together.
"It's fine to have quips be a part of your charm, but if you're going to run and be folksy then you need to have staff to help clean things up," said Dickerson. "He is not putting together a staff. His staffers are going to other campaigns, which means even if he did start there would be no one left to build an organization."
"One of the questions about Huckabee from the non-evangelical wing is whether he's ready for prime time in a dangerous world," he added. "Even if he were to run his late-assembled staff and seeming ambivalence about a run would offer a backdrop so that people would be ready to interpret his first gaffe or the inevitable stumbles once he became an actual candidate and write him off as just not rigorous enough to be president."
Huckabee's ground-level appeal is obvious: He is perhaps the only Republican in the country who squares unflinching social conservatism with a public persona so amiable that even his ideological opponents can't help but like him. If he runs, he has a good shot at becoming the consensus candidate for social conservatives, who are still a major force in the Republican Party even as it has shifted to a focus on fiscal issues.
But Huckabee has a good thing going, and he knows that Mr. Obama will not be easy to knock off next year; it's easy to imagine him concluding that he should stay put, enjoy making money and being a go-to conservative voice, and possibly take another look at a run in 2016. He knows that his star may well still be shining brightly four years from now, thanks to his high-profile media perch, which means that sitting out this cycle won't necessarily mean giving up on becoming president.
And frankly, he simply doesn't sound all that much like he wants to put himself through a campaign, even if he enjoys the speculation around whether he will run. He complained of the "harsh realities" of the cost of a campaign in an interview with the Associated Press earlier this month, and his lack of discipline in his public comments - asked about an Afghanistan endgame last month, he said, "I don't know. I don't think any of us know exactly" - suggest he isn't terribly worried about staying on message.
That doesn't mean Huckabee isn't still leaving the door wide open for a run.
"It's no secret that Governor Huckabee is seriously considering a run for President in 2012 - and various national poll results are, quite frankly, becoming hard for the Governor and his political team to ignore," Hogan Gidley, the executive director of HuckPAC, Huckabee's political action committee, told CBS News.
Gidley added that "Mike Huckabee is for real - and he has the wide breadth of organized national support needed to win the Party's nomination for President and defeat Barack Obama."
That statement notwithstanding, Huckabee's comments and actions in recent months suggest that he may slowly be coming to the realization that he's better off sitting out this cycle. If he does forgo a run, social conservatives in Iowa -- and across the country -- will find themselves searching for another candidate they can rally around.
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