Despite weeks of mixed signals, Mike Huckabee's supporters say they believe the former Arkansas governor is now inching toward another run for president.
Huckabee's top advisers from his 2008 bid say he seems increasingly encouraged by recent polls showing him atop a scattered field of possible candidates for the 2012 Republican nomination. Ed Rollins, Huckabee's national campaign chairman four years ago, said he has been contacting fundraisers to give Huckabee a sense of how much support he'd have for another presidential bid.
"He's not said to me per se, 'Ed, I'm running,' but we wouldn't be having planning meetings and all of the rest of it if he wasn't," Rollins said
Speculation about Huckabee's intentions has intensified since Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's surprise announcement this week that he would not seek the nomination. Barbour's exit could improve the chances for another southerner in the race. The only other serious challenger with ties in the region, which is now the GOP's political base, is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
A bid by Huckabee, a Baptist minister, could shake up the GOP field, especially for Republicans hoping to win support among the party's social conservatives. The winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Huckabee has kept a high profile over the past four years with a weekly Fox News Channel show and a nationally syndicated radio program.
The rest of the field hasn't been waiting for Huckabee to make up his mind. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Gingrich have all taken initial steps toward the race but none has emerged as the candidate to beat. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Donald Trump are among the others considering a run.
Huckabee, who is speaking at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting on Saturday, has said he's in no hurry to make a decision. But Rollins said he's told Huckabee he needs to decide by June 1 in order to be a viable candidate.
Backers who helped him with his unsuccessful bid four years ago say they expect him to join the race this summer. "If I had to bet, I'd say, yes, he probably will throw his hat in," said Mike Campbell, who chaired Huckabee's 2008 campaign in South Carolina.
Rollins said Huckabee is "not as torn as he was a couple of months ago. I think at this point in time it's 'how do you do it, how do you put it together, can it be done?'"
Huckabee has spent the first four months of the year giving conflicting signals about 2012. He stoked interest by visiting early primary states such as South Carolina to promote his latest book, and by meeting with former campaign officials about another possible run. He's also popped up at key conservative events.
On the other hand, he's in the middle of building a new house in Florida and plans to headline a weeklong "Alaska Freedom" cruise featuring Christian singers in June _ the same month Rollins says he should be ready to join the race. His recent political feud with fellow Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck, who called the governor a "progressive" for supporting First Lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity efforts, didn't look like the type of publicity a political hopeful would want as he hunts for support among Republican voters.
Huckabee is gathering the information he needs for his decision, his spokesmen say.
"Governor Huckabee has not asked anyone for money for a presidential run nor has he told anyone that he's going to be a candidate, but of course he has conversations with people all the time to gauge what kind of support he might have if he does announce," said Hogan Gidley, executive director of Huckabee's political action committee.
Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, who has talked regularly with Huckabee and said he plans on backing him again if he gets in, said Huckabee would likely benefit directly from Barbour's exit. "It does nothing but increase his chances," he said. Campbell said Huckabee has asked his supporters in South Carolina to "keep their powder dry," and avoid other commitments, as he considers the race.
Another factor that could speed up a decision is Huckabee's current employer, Fox. The channel's executive vice president of programming told the Daily Beast this week that network officials planned to meet with Huckabee soon to discuss his future. The channel would suspend his show if he becomes a candidate. The channel in March suspended the contracts of Gingrich and Santorum as on-air contributors as they moved toward White House runs.