By TONY LEYS
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who came from behind to win the 2008 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, announced Saturday night that he won’t attempt to repeat the feat.
“All the factors say, ‘Go,’ but my heart says, ‘No,’” he said on his Fox News show.
The good-humored former Baptist minister worked tirelessly in Iowa during the last campaign cycle, overtaking better-known and better-financed candidates to place first in the caucuses. Huckabee was supported by 34percent of caucus participants, compared to 25percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who came in second.
Huckabee went on to win seven other states, but he eventually conceded that he could not beat Arizona Sen. John McCain for the nomination. After the campaign, Huckabee took the Fox News job and continued writing books. Though he occasionally traveled back to Iowa, many Republicans here didn’t see him putting in the kind of effort they would expect if he were running again.
Saturday night, Huckabee said he was amused by pundits who’d claimed for weeks that they knew what he would do, even though he hadn’t decided. He said many people from around the country had urged him to run, his family supported the idea, and he could have garnered enough money to mount a vigorous campaign. But after praying about the issue, he said, he realized he should stay out of the race.
“So many good and dear people have put forth extraordinary effort without any assurance that I would even mount a campaign. And it pains me, seriously pains me, to let them down,” he said. “But I also know my decision is going to delight just as many, who aren’t that fond of me.”
The former Arkansas governor still had strong support in Iowa. A poll of Iowa Republicans done last month by Public Policy Polling showed Huckabee led the potential field, with support from 27 percent of respondents. Romney was second in the poll, with 16 percent. Businessman Donald Trump was third, with 14 percent.
Eric Woolson of West Des Moines, who was Huckabee’s Iowa campaign manager in 2008, said he believes his old boss truly was torn about the decision.
Woolson, who now is a communications consultant to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said Pawlenty and the other 2012 candidates will need to work hard to try to win over Huckabee’s supporters. Woolson noted that many Huckabee backers had never participated in the Iowa caucuses before 2008.
“It’s going to take them some time to say, ‘Do I want to be involved in 2012 at all?’” he said.
Woolson said it’s hard to predict which candidate stands the best chance of benefiting from Huckabee’s decision.
“I think it’s really wide open at this point, because different people supported the governor for different reasons.” He said many observers falsely described Huckabee’s supporters as a uniform crowd of evangelical Christian home-schooling families. In fact, he said, many were fiscal conservatives attracted by the former governor’s common-sense ideas about limiting government.
Craig Schoenfeld, executive director of the Iowa campaign for Newt Gingrich, agreed that no candidate will be able to take Huckabee’s former supporters for granted. “We’re not afraid of the hard work, and we’re anxious to get to it,” he said.
Schoenfeld said he expects the Republican field to firm up in the next few weeks. Huckabee’s announcement “makes things a lot clearer,” he said.
Gingrich, who is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, last week announced that he is running. So did Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Others, including Pawlenty and Romney, are expected to announce candidacies soon.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who also is considered a likely candidate, expressed optimism that his socially conservative message would resonate with Huckabee fans.
“Those of us who believe in the virtues and values of life and family can never have enough allies, and I am grateful to Governor Huckabee for helping to keep those issues front and center,” Santorum said in a prepared statement.
The field of candidates is taking longer than usual to form. In Iowa, part of the delay might have been due to the uncertainty over whether Huckabee would run.
Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn warned on a C-SPAN show last month that the former Arkansas governor needed to decide soon. Strawn noted that many other campaigns were starting to sign up county leaders and precinct chairs. Such organizers are especially crucial in Iowa, where it takes extensive effort to make sure a candidate’s supporters turn out for caucuses. Strawn suggested that although Huckabee would not need to introduce himself to Iowans the way he did four years ago, he would have a tough time winning if many of his previous activists committed to someone else before he decided to run.