Like Ed Kilgore and Nate Silver, I think Mike Huckabee's decision not to run for president increases the chances that Michelle Bachmann could win the nomination. In my view, the three main contenders for the nomination are, in order, 1) Tim Pawlenty, 2) A party establishment-friendly Republican not currently running, such as Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan, and 3) Bachmann. Everybody else, including Sick Man Of The GOP Field Mitt Romney, falls into the longshot bin.
Of the establishment-friendly potential candidates, the one most likely to pull the trigger at the moment seems to be Daniels. I think he could mount a serious bid for the nomination, but he's much more flawed than his Republican fans think, both as a general election candidate and as a candidate to win the nomination in the first place. Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, in a post begging Ryan to enter the race, fires this brutal drive-by attack on Daniels:
Ryan and his staff may think, “Well Mitch can do it, we don’t have to.” Whatever you think of Daniels, he’s no Paul Ryan. Candidates aren’t interchangeable, least of all these two.
It’s apparent that Daniels (most recently in suggesting he’d take the pro-choice, anti-Iraq surge, pro-North Korea engagement, pro-2006 Palestinian election, Condi Rice as a vice presidential choice) is hobbled, at the very least, by a tin ear and lack of sympatico with the GOP base. Daniels is older than Ryan (hence less attractive to young voters and less able to paint Obama as old-hat, the defender of the status quo) and less acceptable to hard-core conservatives. If he’s serious about cutting defense and pulling back from America’s commitments in the world, Daniels will (in a way the internationalist, pro-defense Ryan would not) take the party and potentially the country down a dangerous road. Daniels has already expressed a willingness to consider tax hikes; Ryan has ruled them out.
Obviously, If Daniels wins the nomination, Rubin would forget all about this. But it does give a sense of some wide-open liabilities that more conservative candidates could expose in a contested primary. Social conservatives, economic conservatives (defined as taxophobes) and foreign policy hawks all have strong reason to oppose him.
If no other establishmentarian Republican enters the race, then the field is fairly clear for Pawlenty. If he wins in Iowa, he can coast the rest of the way. If Bachmann wins in Iowa, the terrified party elites will probably rally to the side of the next most viable candidate, which will probably be him, assuming a second-place showing there. I assume that Pawlenty's establishment support would probably (but not certainly) allow him to defeat Bachmann.
But, if Daniels enters the race, it would create a very strong chance for Bachmann to capture the nomination. It could split the potential establishment alternative should she win Iowa. And if Daniels rather than Pawlenty emerges as the choice of the party elite, then Bachmann has an opponent she could beat. Pawlenty is perfectly acceptable to the most conservative factions of the party, and could hold his own with the extreme-crazy wing while dominating among the less-extreme-crazy wing. Daniels might simply face implacable opposition from the extreme-crazy wing.
Once again, there are so many variables at play that none of these projections should be considered too definitive. But I think Bachmann is a seriously underrated dark horse possibility. She raises a lot of money. She works the Tea Party circuit and has high-level communication skills.
Time pundit Mark Halperin tabbed Bachmann as a 10,000-1 shot to capture the nomination -- those odds are probably 1,000 times too low.