Should Barack Obama win reelection this fall, the 2012 Republican campaign might be remembered as much for those who decided to remain on the sidelines and leave a feeble frontrunner unchallenged as for the party's actual nominee. Even though Mitt Romney has held onto his place as the only candidate who can realistically win the nomination, it has become increasingly evident that the former Massachusetts governor was a weaker candidate than anyone initially envisioned. The fact that Rick Santorum—a candidate dismissed as a bottom feeder by his opponents, the media and Republican voters alike as little as three months ago—has caused Romney this much trouble provides all the proof needed that, should Romney have faced a strong field of opponents, he wouldn't seem so inevitable. Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, and Chris Christie all got their fair share of inducements to join the race, and the media spent the spring and summer parsing every Sarah Palin statement to see if she might join the field.
But the most consequential decision was the one announced last May, when Mike Huckabee—Romney's 2008 foe who defeated him in the Iowa caucuses—said that he would not run again for the Republican nomination.
Now that a full two months of voting are behind us, I have to wonder if Huckabee is regretting that decision. Romney was always a tenuous frontrunner, but he has proved far more gaffe-prone and incapable of adapting his campaign message than most would have predicted a year ago. He's still on track to easily gain the party's nomination, but that’s only because Romney's field of opponents has proven even more ineffectual and inept, unable to pose any real challenge. If Romney were squaring off against a capable opponent (and no, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul do not count) his high unfavorables and struggles to gain support outside groups that aren't over 65 years old or making $100,000 would put him on track to lose the nomination.
Huckabee could have been such a candidate. There would have never been the momentary rises for Santorum or Gingrich had Huckabee run a second time. He occupied a similar place in the 2008 race, appealing to voters who were very conservative, evangelical, or lower down on the income scale. Huckabee's opposition to gay rights, feminism, and other religious right favorite's might be just as staunch as Rick Santorum's—Huckabee did, after all, back up his pro-family policy positions by joining his wife in a covenant marriage, a restrictive legal definition which makes it hard for a couple to seek a divorce, and he has called evolution into question—but he doesn’t come across as a demonizing social conservative. It's hard to envision Huckabee haranguing the value families place on a college education for their children. Possessing a charm and wit that would clearly throw robotic Mitt off balance, Huckabee has an ability to relate to voters in a personal way. Much like his predecessor as Arkansas governor, he can sell voters on the fact that he truly feels their pain (even if his solution is a regressive FairTax that would scrap income taxes and replace them with a flat national sales tax), an immeasurably important skill during an economic downturn.
One of the first times I remember listening closely to Huckabee was an interview on The Daily Show in January 2007, days after he left the governor's office and shortly before his presidential campaign would become official. It was clear that he was a conservative, but he presented himself as an affable politician, not disdainful for the misfortunate, just choosing different policy solutions. "I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at everybody over it," Huckabee said. The former Baptist minister wasn't backing down from his social views, but he also spoke about the environment, healthy living—a personal pitch after he dropped over 110 pounds in the governor's office—immigration, and other typically liberal issues in a way no Republican then (or now) would dare touch.
"For example, I'm pro-life," Huckabee told Jon Stewart. "I think life begins at conception but I don't think it ends at birth. We have to be concerned with a child's education, health care, safe neighborhoods, clean water, access to a college education. That is pro-life, to care about a child's entire life." Even effete liberal Stewart appeared to be won over by the pitch. "I read this book, and it could be written by not necessarily a socialist, but it's pretty liberal," he said glowingly. "It speaks of a healthy lifestyle, and government's responsibility in clean air and water and environment."
Imagine this not so far-flung scenario: rather than staying on Fox News, Huckabee leaves punditry and enters the race in May 2011. He tops his 2007 performance at the Ames Straw Poll and finishes first this time. Replace Santorum's Iowa victory with a Huckabee win, except instead of a virtual tie Huckabee would have likely repeated his 2008 double-digit margin. New Hampshire was always going to be Romney territory, but South Carolina would have been fertile ground for Huckabee. He narrowly lost the state to John McCain in 2008, and would have won easily if Fred Thompson had not split the conservative vote. Huckabee would have likely been the Palmetto state favorite rather than Gingrich, granting him two quick wins and winnowing the field down quickly to a Romney-Huckabee matchup.
He'd be in much the same boat as Santorum is at the moment, except with no candidate standing in his path syphoning off votes from the right. Plus, Huckabee would have started off with higher name recognition, which would carry over to the fundraising and organization that Santorum so direly needs at the moment. Though Huckabee was seen as being on the extreme edge of the party last time around, his views on both economic policy have become accepted standards in the intervening four years; just see the widespread support for the Blunt amendment or the various flat taxes proposed by Republican presidential candidates.
Huckabee chose instead to keep the easy job at Fox News, raking in millions and enjoying his new mansion in Florida. He gets to play the role of party bigwig every once in a while—he’s hosted a handful of candidate forums for Fox—but doesn't have to subject himself to the rigmarole of a presidential campaign. For that, liberals should be thankful. With Romney as the likely nominee, Obama will get to square off against the cold, calculating consultant, a man who says he likes to fire people when the country when vast swaths of the nation are looking for a job.
If Huckabee had entered the race and defeated Romney, the 2012 campaign might look a bit more like 1992: an incumbent easily painted as elitist during the country's economic downturn facing off against an everyman southern governor who, like most Americans, has struggled a bit with his weight, and could relate to the pain of the unemployed and charm them with a bit of sax or bass. Huckabee's softhearted tenor and environmental evangelism might have even peeled away a few disaffected independents that might have voted for Obama otherwise. The crossover of his conservative religious values into his political prescriptions would have certainly alienated many, but that's no different than any of the Republicans who have tied themselves to the GOP crusade against birth control. And the Republican base wouldn't just be placated, they'd be invigorated, ready to go to battle for a candidate they love, rather than one they merely tolerate.