Republicans are sorting out the impact of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s announcement yesterday that he will not seek the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
The quick take is that his departure will (1) free up a lot of political talent (that would have otherwise worked on Barbour’s campaign), (2) free up a lot of political money (that would have otherwise gone to Barbour’s campaign committee), and (3) cleared the road a bit for Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a friend of Barbour’s who said yesterday that he would have endorsed him had he chosen to run.
Gov. Barbour got out of the race because, he said, he lacked the required “fire in the belly.” It is also true that his chances of winning Iowa and winning New Hampshire were slim. And that if he couldn’t win in those two states, it would be all but impossible for him to win the South Carolina primary. And that if he couldn’t win South Carolina, the Barbour campaign would be over then and there. As Mr. Barbour is someone who calculates every last political angle, it is likely that the absence of belly-fire had something to do with his being unable to imagine any realistic path to the GOP nomination.
Now that he’s out, the GOP race hinges on whether former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee decides to get in. His former campaign chairman, Ed Rollins, says that he will. If he does, he seems a prohibitive favourite to win the Iowa caucuses, a likely loser in the New Hampshire primary (to Mitt Romney), thus setting up a showdown between the Christian and the Mormon in South Carolina. Huckabee wins that in a walk and probably sweeps the remaining Southern primaries and becomes, de facto, the GOP nominee. Republican presidential candidates who carry the South in the primaries win the GOP nomination.
Assuming Huckabee does run (and we assume that), the departure of Haley Barbour is especially bad news for Mitt Romney, who needed another “southern” candidate in the South Carolina primary to draw votes away from Huckabee. Head-to-head against Huckabee, Romney has virtually no chance of winning anything but the coastal counties in South Carolina. With Barbour in the mix, there was at least the possibility that some of Huckabee’s good ole boy voters would wander over to the Barbour column.
The big question now is: what happens if Huckabee doesn’t run? Barbour’s departure didn’t really rearrange the chessboard. Huckabee’s departure would, because if Huckabee doesn’t run, the South (and the social conservative base of the party) would no longer have a candidate it could call its own. Gingrich doesn’t fit the bill. Bachmann is too loony. Palin can’t win. Pawlenty isn’t the real deal. Romney is inauthentic (and Mormon!) as well.
The social conservative wing of the party isn’t going to not have a candidate. The social conservative wing of the party is the party. Socially conservative voters comprise the majority of GOP primary voters. It is inconceivable that they would not have “one of their own” in the race.
All of which suggests that if Huckabee doesn’t run, the scramble will be on for someone to take his place. And whoever ends up running as the social conservative champion will almost certainly not come from the existing line-up of candidates.