- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are tied for first place among likely 2012 GOP primary voters, according to a sampling of recent polls, but the betting in the political community is that Mr. Romney almost surely will run and Mr. Huckabee will not.

A multimillionaire businessman and former Massachusetts governor who sought the GOP nomination in 2008, Mr. Romney is free to pursue the 2012 race full time.

Mr. Huckabee, also a former governor from Arkansas, would have to give up his Fox News Channel TV show and the income that comes with it.

“I’m thinking about [running],” Mr. Huckabee insisted this week. “It’s just that I haven’t made a decision.”

Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Romney and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin were in a statistical tie for first place in a Gallup poll released on Wednesday, with no candidate having broken away from what is still a very crowded field.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee were rivals for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, with Mr. Romney far outspending Mr. Huckabee in a contest ultimately won by Arizona Sen. John McCain. Mrs. Palin burst onto the national stage in that race as Mr. McCain’s surprise choice as vice presidential running mate.

The Real Clear Politics average of recent presidential nomination preference polls has Mr. Romney winning 19.1 percent, enough to lead among the six other hypothetical contenders in the poll, but by a mere 0.7 percent.

Eleven months before the first nomination contests begin, practitioners and watchers of politics give Mr. Romney a slight edge for the nomination because of his personal wealth and his wealth of successes in business.

But if polls this early in a cycle accurately forecast the outcome, Americans might be addressing Rudolph W. Giuliani today as “Mr. President.” The former New York mayor was in first place with 40 percent of the likely GOP primary voters in a February 2007 poll, with Mr. McCain at only 18 percent and Mr. Romney at a dispiriting 7 percent.

In Mr. Romney’s case, his biggest obstacle in 2012 is “Romneycare,” the health care system he devised as governor that is being likened to President Obama’s own national health care law — one routinely savaged by virtually every GOP candidate.

Mr. Romney, 63, is seen as a more comfortable candidate compared to his sometimes stiff 2008 persona, but cannot match the relaxed likability of Mr. Huckabee, 55, a former Southern Baptist minister.

But Mr. Huckabee faces questions of his own from some core GOP primary voters, who worry he is a bit soft on issues such as crime, immigration and Islamist militancy. His biggest obstacle next year might be fundraising, combined with unease over electing a deeply religious former preacher among some in the electorate.

Mrs. Palin, with 16.5 percent, falls into third place behind Mr. Huckabee’s 18.4 percent.

The former Alaska governor, at 47 among the youngest of the potential contenders, is a political superstar who attracts TV cameras and press coverage as virtually no one else in the party. But a surprisingly large number of political professionals — Republican and conservative — privately express disdain for her executive experience and electability.

Veteran Republican campaign operatives say a number of other possible candidates have the strengths and experience to score an upset and go all the way.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, has high name recognition and comes in at 10.6 percent in the polling average. His idea-laden speeches captivate audiences. But critics on the right complain that he is a “big-government conservative” and, at 67, is one of the oldest potential candidates in the field.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul retains a strong following and deep funding base among the party’s libertarian wing. He places fourth in the early polling at 6.2 percent, but also faces doubts he can expand his support beyond his fervent base.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, surprisingly, brings up the rear with 3.6 percent in the polling averages. Considered somewhat of a moderate until he began sounding a more conservative tone in recent speeches, Mr. Pawlenty, 50, must fight the image among some in the party that he is too bland to lead the ticket.

One second-tier contender who some think could leap to the first tier is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former director of the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration. He’s won praise for the financial stewardship of his state but his call for a “truce” on social issues such as abortion has caused him difficulties with the party’s social conservatives.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose willingness to take on entrenched special interests in his state has electrified GOP voters, has shot up in some recent polls, but consistently insists he will not run next year.

Also in the mix but registering for now in the low single digits in the polls are former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a highly respected former party chairman; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; business executive and Atlanta talk-show host Herman Cain; real estate mogul Donald Trump; former New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson; and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a favorite of many tea party activists.

Lanky South Dakota Sen. John Thune, 50, seen as the best hope for a sitting member of Congress to make a White House run, took himself out of the 2012 contest on Wednesday.

Governors and former governors dominate the GOP field for now, but no political supernova has blinded likely GOP primary voters to date — and so 2012’s outcome remains anybody’s guess.

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