Mike Huckabee pulled off quite a Sweeps Week carny act Saturday night, pulling in what must have been a record audience for his Fox show by sending all sorts of mixed signals about his presidential intentions. Prior to his announcement, he presided over a spirited trashing of Mitt Romney’s health care speech and listened good-naturedly to guest Ted Nugent call for Navy SEAL teams to “secure” the borders by giving transgressors the ol’ bin Laden treatment. He then sat in on bass guitar with the bow-hunting rocker on “Cat Scratch Fever,” and, finally, he faced the cameras, bobbing and weaving for a good five minutes before informing viewers that God had vetoed what could have been a successful 2012 presidential run for His Faithful Servant.
Production values aside, Huckabee’s announcement might not affect the presidential race as much as a divinely sanctioned green light would have: Until recently, after all, most handicappers had assumed he’d give 2012 a pass. But the certainty of a Huck-less field is a big deal all the same—and not without its winners and losers.
The loudest huzzahs for Huckabee’s announcement undoubtedly occurred in the Greater Minneapolis Area. With Huck out, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann now has a clean shot at the conservative evangelical activists who backed him in 2008. Indeed, many of them today might even prefer Bachmann’s Old Testament thunder to the New Testament cheeriness that Huckabee so reliably exudes. Bachmann, therefore, can’t be counted out in Iowa, since the biggest threat to her among serious social conservative zealots is no longer the 2008 Caucus winner, but probably talk-show host Herman Cain, the champion crowd-pleaser whose prospects for actual victory remain miniscule.
The ultimate beneficiary of Huck’s demurral, however, is likely to be Tim Pawlenty. His all-in-for-Iowa strategy now looks considerably more promising, and he is appealing to many pragmatic social conservatives as an electable alternative to the unpalatable Mitt Romney and (if he runs) Mitch Daniels. A field without Huckabee, moreover, is a field without a viable deep-fried southern option, which could be great news for a guy like T-Paw in South Carolina and other southern states. Pawlenty is already ahead of the game in Palmetto State pandering: He has long championed the balanced budget constitutional amendment that is Senator Jim DeMint’s litmus-test for 2012 candidates, and he’s outdoing his rivals in championing Governor Nikki Haley’s demand that they all join her crusade against the National Labor Relations Board’s intervention in a dispute between Boeing and the machinists’ union over the relocation of an airplane production plant to South Carolina.
The candidate who would appear to suffer most from this decision, on the other hand, might well be Huck’s old nemesis, Mitt Romney. After all, a Huckless field not only bolsters the chances of Pawlenty; it also increases the temptation to run for other candidates with the potential to steal support away from Romney, most obviously Mitch Daniels. And ironically, Huck’s absence from Iowa could mess up Romney’s efforts to stay out of the state entirely or at least keep expectations there very low. Polling in Iowa that does not include Huck invariably shows Mitt running first—an assessment of strength that few analysts consider real, given the heavy campaigning of other, lesser-known candidates in the state, and the cap on Romney’s support that attacks on his health care record will likely impose. Still, his illusory poll position could lure him into re-entering the state that tripped him up so badly in 2008. And if, instead, he rebukes the state decisively, ever-sensitive Iowans could deny him even a respectable finish going into the more Romney-favorable contests in Nevada and New Hampshire.
Of course, some of Huckabee’s key assets—his backers and former political operatives—have yet to declare their new allegiances, meaning that at least some of the benefits from Huck’s announcement have yet to be allocated. For instance, one of Huckabee’s key South Carolina backers, former Governor David Beasley, has started making unlikely positive noises about Jon Huntsman. But at least two important pols close to Huckabee are now truly up for grabs: Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats, who is heading up a social conservative group that may make a big endorsement in the fall, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Whatever direction in which these folks ultimately lean could have a decisive effect on Iowa and the subsequent contests. For the time being, however, look for Pawlenty, everybody’s favorite second choice, to acquire some more believers.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.