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‘Heart says no,’ Huckabee admits, in ruling out 2012 run

By Christopher Rowland
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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Mike Huckabee told a live Fox News TV audience last night that he will sit out the 2012 campaign, ending his lengthy flirtation with a second presidential bid and removing a top-tier potential contender from the Republican primary field.

“All the factors say go, but my heart says no, and that is the decision I have made, and in it, I have finally found resolution,’’ Huckabee said on his weekly program, after doing interviews on Mississippi River flooding and picking up an electric bass to accompany right-wing rocker Ted Nugent for a rendition of “Cat Scratch Fever.’’

He cited a process of prayer and reflection, saying his family would have fully supported him if he had run.

“I know I’m going to deeply disappoint a lot of people I love. It pains me to let them down,’’ he said. “But I know my decision is going to delight just as many who aren’t that fond of me.’’

Huckabee had been close to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in national primary polls, and his decision creates a yawning vacuum in Republican leadership. But even with Huckabee out, Romney may not be the biggest beneficiary.

The more conservative candidates in the race will be scrambling for the support of the evangelical Christians who fueled Huckabee’s candidacy in 2008 and helped the former pastor deliver a devastating defeat of Romney in the Iowa caucuses. The list of possible beneficiaries includes former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and former US senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Romney, for his part, has so far downplayed Iowa — focusing more attention on New Hampshire, the early state with more moderate voters. He has a big lead in the polls there.

It will take time for social conservatives to settle on a new favorite to replace the folksy and likable former Arkansas governor, predicted Eric Woolson, an Iowa GOP consultant who ran Huckabee’s campaign there in 2008 and has signed up with Pawlenty for 2012.

“They’re stuck on Huck, and it’s going to take some time for them to accept he’s not going to be in the field,’’ he said.

For Pawlenty, who has been courting both Christian and Tea Party support, it creates a big opportunity, Woolson said. But it also leaves the door wide open for Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who has said he will decide on whether to run in a matter of weeks. It also could lure former Alaska governor Sarah Palin into the race.

“Other dominoes could fall. Maybe the field isn’t static after all,’’ said Woolson.

Iowa pollster Ann Selzer said the absence of Huckabee will add even more volatility to the unsettled and late-blooming GOP primary. Wherever Huckabee supporters end up initially may not be where they stay for the entire race, she predicted.

Huckabee has built a media business powerhouse from his own brand with book contracts, a syndicated radio show, and his Fox TV program.

As he pondered his future over the last few months, he has openly discussed the personal costs of giving up a business enterprise to run for the White House. Even his announcement last night seemed tailored to boost ratings of his show, not maximize political impact. On the Fox News website, a notice said: “Will he or won’t he make a White House run? The Gov gives his answer on Huckabee!’’

In an e-mail to some supporters that was leaked to Time magazine, Huckabee seemed to be hinting he would get into the race, saying he was preparing to “pull the trigger.’’

“Many friends have said, ‘How can we help you in the decision?’ My answer has consistently been, ‘Pray that I have clarity.’ I have it and will share it Saturday night during the show,’’ he wrote.

Huckabee’s move highlights the problems the Republican Party is having fielding credible challengers to President Obama. In a recent poll of Republican voters in Iowa, Huckabee and Romney virtually tied in the mid-20 percent range; Palin (who has not announced that she will run) picked up 15 percent; “someone else’’ got 11 percent, beating out the rest of the field, which was all in the single digits.

Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College political science professor, said the reluctance of the GOP’s biggest stars is telling.

“Either privately they don’t think Obama is as vulnerable as they say publicly,’’ she said, “or the money people are playing it coy and they are having difficulty seeing how they go from an announcement to putting together the funds that they need.’’