The shape of the Republican presidential race depends on Mike Huckabee. The primary season will be one kind of contest with the former Arkansas governor in the race, and another without him. With Huckabee, the race would feature a favorite of social conservatives in a leading role in a campaign likely to focus on economic issues. Without him, a more economic-minded candidate might lead, with several other candidates vying for what would have been Huckabee's social-conservative spot.
Which will it be? These days, among the people who have known and worked with Huckabee, there is a growing sense that he's leaning toward another run for the White House. What follows is based on conversations with a number of people close to Huckabee, but not with Huckabee himself.
Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished in a virtual tie for second place in the 2008 Republican race. Now, Romney is running while Huckabee, happily appearing on Fox News, ABC radio and in bestselling books, is holding back. Yet an undecided Huckabee is still a major factor in early polls.
Most surveys show Huckabee and Romney in the lead, with Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and the rest of the possible Republican field trailing at some distance. The Huckabee-Romney lead was in place before the rise of Donald Trump and will likely remain after the Trump phenomenon plays out.
Huckabee knows that polls at this stage reflect name recognition as much as anything else, but on the other hand, he is polling ahead of other GOP politicos -- Gingrich, Palin and Romney -- who also have high name recognition. When a politician sees himself at the top of presidential polls, it has a powerful effect -- to push him toward running.
In addition to the polls, Huckabee's experience during a 29-stop tour last March to promote his book, "A Simple Government," made a big impression on him. In six stops in Iowa and five in South Carolina, as well as stops in Florida and elsewhere, he met large and receptive crowds -- the living, breathing embodiment of his high poll numbers.
During the tour, Huckabee started talking more frequently with friends and political associates. If he ran, what would a campaign look like? What would it cost? How would it work?
Huckabee knows a 2012 campaign wouldn't be the same as 2008. Back then, he came out of nowhere, with no money but with a small, devoted following among social conservatives. He won the Iowa caucuses with a tiny fraction of the resources that Romney poured into the race.
This time around, Huckabee would undoubtedly have more donors and more support. But campaign finances are perhaps not as big a concern as personal finances. Huckabee has never had much money -- the governor of Arkansas was the lowest-paid in the nation during many of the 11 years he served -- and his 2008 campaign was hampered by his need to make a living. Even as he stumped in Iowa and elsewhere, he had to take time off each month to make paid speeches. That's how he supported himself.
Now Huckabee, with his Fox program and other projects, is well paid for the first time in his life. But if he becomes a candidate, he'll have to leave Fox, as Gingrich and Rick Santorum have already done. (Full disclosure: I am a Fox News contributor but have no knowledge of Huckabee's arrangements with the network.)
If he runs, Huckabee, as a front-runner, would likely receive more scrutiny than ever before. In 2008, he took some hits when it was reported that he gave clemency to dangerous criminals who committed murder after he recommended they be freed. In a 2012 race, there would be a more detailed examination of his record as governor, as well as the rest of his life. For example, before politics, Huckabee spent more than a decade as a minister. How much do we know about that part of his career? Not a lot.
The prospect of a Huckabee candidacy, much less a Huckabee victory, makes a lot of Washington Republicans deeply uncomfortable. Economic conservatives dislike Huckabee for what they feel is his squishy record on taxes. Foreign-policy conservatives don't like him, either, mostly for his lack of experience with their issues. If he does mount a campaign, Huckabee would likely argue that the groups have much in common -- most social conservatives are also fiscal conservatives -- and he can win wide support. Whether that is true can only be tested by a campaign. If there is one.