Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has emerged as the front-runner for the 2012 presidential nomination, should he choose to seek it. A new Winthrop University poll of “probable” Republican primary voters in 11 southern states shows Mr. Huckabee with a solid core of support (22%) and an early lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (12%), former Gov. Sarah Palin (9%) and former Gov. Mitt Romney (7%).
The poll comes on the heels of a recent Gallup Poll of Republicans nationally that showed Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Romney (and Mrs. Palin) in a dead heat for “front-runner” status.
National polls aren’t particular useful at this stage of a presidential campaign, except for fund-raising purposes (we’re ahead, get on board now!). But no Republican nominee in the post-World War II era has won the GOP presidential nomination without solid Southern support. The candidate who wins Southern states will almost certainly be the nominee. Mr. Huckabee is the only GOP candidate with a solid base of Southern support.
The other news inside the Winthrop Poll was the continuing weakness of former Gov. Romney. Mr. Romney still runs below a double-digit number (that would be “10”) down South. He’s getting hammered on “Romneycare” by all of his rivals (and embraced by President Obama, thus making him even less attractive to Southern GOP primary voters). But the key variable seems to be his religion. Southern GOP primary voters are overwhelmingly Christian and socially conservative. Romney is Mormon and from Massachusetts.
The poll is also bad news for Mrs. Palin, whose prospects seem to have dimmed in recent months.