With Mitt Romney’s nomination all but assured, the vice presidential guessing game is off to a running start.
Most of the early speculation has focused on shiny young stars like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, or stolid battleground surrogates like Ohio Senator Rob Portman and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
But conservatives have another name in mind: Mike Huckabee, the folksy former Arkansas Governor who has spent the past five years winning over the GOP base as a host for Fox News.
Over the past few weeks, Huckabee has emerged as the clear VP favourite among evangelicals and conservative leaders, many of whom are concerned about Romney’s ability to mobilize grassroots Republicans.
“Romney’s going to have to have all of the support he can get from his base,” American Family Association founder Don Wildmon told Business Insider. “He’s going to need somebody to get evangelicals who didn’t vote four years ago excited and go out to the polls. And Mike Huckabee is the only one who can do it in the way it needs to be done.”
“It’s going to be hard to get people to go to the polls unless they’ve got some reason to go,” Wildmon added. “If they’ve got somebody that they know, that they can support without question, then they’ll go, they’ll make it happen.”
WATCH: Huckabee’s Best MomentsIn interviews with Business Insider, several evangelical activists and GOP operatives suggested that a Huckabee VP pick is Romney’s best — and maybe only — shot at beating President Barack Obama in the fall.
“I don’t think Romney can whip Obama — the only way he can is by putting an evangelical on the ticket who can move the constituency,” said David Lane, a prominent evangelical activist and conservative kingmaker. “You talk to a lot of evangelical leaders, and they think that the only way Romney can win is to put Huckabee on the ticket.”
“There may be someone else, but I don’t know of them,” Lane added.
Rex Elsass, a veteran GOP ad man, agreed: “Nobody has more credibility, not only as an evangelical leader, but as an overall conservative leader,” Elsass told Business Insider.
“He is more than just a niche candidate — he has certainly demonstrated that he’s someone who can not only energize the base, but who can mobilize everyday voters,” Elsass said. “I would hope that Mitt Romney and those who advise him closely would see that he is somebody who has the strength, the ability to articulate a message in a unique way, and the ability to inspire the base in a way that he [Romney] needs.”
Although the former Arkansas Governor rarely comes up in media V.P. chatter, sources familiar with Romney’s vice presidential selection process say that Huckabee’s name has been floated as a possible No. 2.
Those sources note that Huckabee actually checks off many of the boxes for a desired V.P. candidate. The bass-guitar-playing Fox News host has national name recognition, and could help galvanize the Southern evangelical voters who eschewed Romney in the Republican primaries. And unlike most of the other potential veeps, Huckabee has already survived the harsh public vetting of a presidential campaign, making it harder for Democrats to cast him as a scary, lady-hating, right-wing zealot.
And as evangelical lawyer Mat Staver points out, Huckabee could also help solve Romney’s problems with key demographics, including blue-collar conservatives and Latinos.
“Any VP pick needs to have conservatives and the Hispanic community clearly in line with their visions,” Staver told BI. “Mike Huckabee has already done that.”
Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University School of Law, also notes that having Huckabee on the ballot would help assuage conservative concerns about Romney’s track record, particularly on social issues like gay marriage and abortion.
“The strength of the ticket is within the two candidates,” Staver said. “”Whoever the candidate picks will be a major statement about his policies.”
But some conservative leaders are concerned that Romney and his campaign advisors will overlook conservatives, and head down the middling path that doomed John McCain and Bob Dole.
A conservative VP pick is “exceptionally important,” for Mitt Romney, explained David Barton, a longtime GOP operative and prominent evangelical historian.
“Characteristically, it is conservatives that give you all the time and the passion,” Barton told BI. “They don’t give much money, but they will walk blocks, they will make phone calls, they will touch all of their neighbours. Moderates tend to give money, but not do the actual, functional work. So you need someone who can bring both sides — you need all the workers, you need the grassroots constituencies, and moderates don’t have that — it takes a whole lot more than just being willing to go out and vote.”
“I don’t know that they [the Romney campaign] are as fully cognisant as they should be,” he added.
But even if Romney puts his 2008 rival on the shortlist, it is not clear that Huckabee would want the job. The former Arkansas Governor passed on a presidential bid this year to remain in political retirement, enjoying a cushy, attack-ad-free life in his home on the Florida panhandle.
“I’m sure he’d be interested, but he’s got to weigh his options,” Wildmon said. “But Mike understands that, every now and then, you have to do something for your country.”
Video production by Daniel Goodman