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The Ramifications of Huckabee's Departure

The latest statements of non-candidacy from Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee leave a very thin Republican field and have significant implications for the remaining declared candidates. The absence of Trump is less significant than the absence of Huckabee because Mitt Romney was also running as the "competent businessman" Republican. The void Huckabee creates, however, is much more significant, particularly for the political fortunes of the strongest Republican remaining, Mitt Romney.

To start, the absence of Huckabee likely heightens expectations for Mitt Romney in Iowa because he no longer has a credible excuse for not competing and finishing well in the caucuses there. Had Huckabee stayed in the race, Romney could have ceded Iowa to Huckabee and concentrated on New Hampshire. That option is no longer available. For Romney, losing to Huckabee in Iowa is not a mortal blow. Losing to Tim Pawlenty or Rick Santorum, on the other hand, would be a strong repudiation of the former Massachusetts governor.

Huckabee's departure also raises the stakes for Romney in South Carolina because anything other than a victory there (or perhaps a very close second-place finish) could be fatal for his candidacy by illustrating how strongly some in the GOP dislike him. Whether such dislike is based on evangelicals' suspicion of his faith or on conservatives' suspicion of his ideological consistency, a disappointing finish in South Carolina, a state Huckabee clearly could have won, could call into question Romney's general election viability in Outer South and "less ruby red" Southern states with growing Latino (Democratic) populations that any Republican must win in order to defeat President Obama. States like Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and perhaps Texas could potentially be more competitive if disaffected or unenergized Huckabee voters don't support Romney and stay home.

A third consequence is that it leaves a large conservative constituency without a top-tier candidate to rally behind. Mike Huckabee was a staunch social conservative who believed that the social conservative wing of the GOP should not be secondary to the fiscal conservative wing. While other Republicans emphasize fiscal issues while trying not to antagonize social conservatives too much, Huckabee was not afraid to embrace these voters. It would seem that the obvious beneficiaries of Huckabee's absence are former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman. Of course, it has been more than 120 years since a presidential candidate has gone from the House of Representatives to the presidency. And Rick Santorum lost his last race by more than 15 percentage points. But they now have a lot less credible competition for the voters Huckabee could easily claim.

Fourth and perhaps most ironically, Huckabee's departure may push social conservative issues to the center stage as social conservatives clamor for more attention to be paid to their causes, such as restricting gay marriage and curbing abortion rights. The current Republican field now consists of two blue-state governors who are trying to run as pragmatic business leaders (Romney and Minnessota Governor Tim Pawlenty), two longshot libertarians (Texas Congressman Ron Paul and New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson), a businessman who has never held political office before (Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain), a Tea Party congresswoman (Bachmann), and a second-tier social conservative candidate (Santorum). Social conservatives are a major constituency in the Iowa caucuses, and they will likely not be silent regarding the lack of attention paid to their issues. This could lead other candidates to overcorrect by paying more attention to the social issues that may give them short-term success in the Republican caucuses and primaries at the expense of giving them long-term problems in a general election with a more moderate electorate. Santorum would seem to be a natural fit for this group, but it should be assumed that the other candidates will challenge him for these votes.

Surely other political analysts have noted that this creates a huge opening on the cultural right. Romney cannot be defeated from the center; he can only be defeated if he is not deemed conservative enough. So watch for Romney to try and cover his right flank by continuing to criticize Obama's policies, but this might not be enough for voters searching for a candidate who has more allegiance to the social issues he is reluctant to address. Huckabee had the best chance of doing this, but now that he is no longer a candidate, do not expect these voters to be content with not having a sufficient crusader for their causes.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.