Sensing a vulnerable President Obama in 2012, the Republican field is beginning to get crowded with a number of high profile, determined, and unabashedly ambitious potential challengers. While predicting the winner of the race for the GOP presidential nomination this early is a tricky endeavor at best, there are a number of factors that point to the two most likely to endure what will certainly be a grueling and costly contest: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Neither of these likely candidates has announced the formation of an exploratory committee yet. However, it would seem that neither Romney nor Huckabee has ever really stopped campaigning over the past four years. Both have tried to maintain a national prominence since the 2008 election, and both have established Political Action Committees to support like-minded conservative candidates for the House and Senate. These PACs will be essential, once the decision is made to throw the hat in, to rapidly ramp up a national campaign.
Mike Huckabee has been particularly effective at securing a continuing presence in the national limelight with his Fox News television talk show, a radio talk show, and the release of two books on effective governing. In fact, Huckabee has been quoted as saying that it will be the response he gets to his latest book, A Simple Government, which will help him decide whether or not he will run for President.
Mitt Romney has held a somewhat lower profile than Huckabee, but his Free and Strong America Political Action Committee has also been busy supporting conservative political candidates. And if Huckabee has been more successful staying in front of the cameras, Romney has been far more successful stocking up on that most critical of campaign resources: cash. According to the Federal Election Commission, in 2010 Romney’s PAC had raised over $9 million, while Huckabee’s “Huck PAC” raised only $1.8 million. This ability to raise funds may very well be Romney’s greatest strength as the nomination process starts to get serious.
The efforts of both men have made them the early favorites in what is likely to be a hotly contested nomination battle. The most recent Gallup poll (March 25) of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents placed Huckabee with the most support (19 percent), followed by Romney (15 percent), with Sarah Palin coming up in third place with 12 percent. This follows a Pew Research Center poll that showed among Republicans and like-minded Independents that 21 percent supported Romney and 20 percent supported Huckabee, with the next closest again being Palin at 12 percent.
While such early support will certainly swing wildly as the nomination fight heats up over the coming months, both Romney and Huckabee have been down this road before. Both did well early in the 2008 campaign, and both are certainly pouring over what went wrong four years ago. So who has the upper hand?
Barring a John Edwards-style, out of the blue scandal, this is Mitt Romney’s nomination to lose. He’s not the perfect GOP candidate, to be sure. At a minimum, his Mormon upbringing might turn off social conservatives who would rather see former pastor-turned-governor Huckabee in the White House. In addition, Romney’s tenure as Massachusetts governor has raised suspicions among Tea Party stalwarts, although there are indications that Romney may have started building inroads even with these more anti-establishment members of the party. If he is successful wooing enough Tea Party support to at least dampen any surprise surges by Huckabee – or even Sarah Palin or Michele Bachman- while at the same time retaining his appeal among establishment Republicans, the odds are we’ll see a Romney-Obama showdown in 2012.