Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee are out. Rep. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich are in. And Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is still waiting by the edge of the pool. While Trump and Huckabee's departures from the 2012 race to the White House weren't all that surprising, their absences reshape a GOP field that has been slow to form and lacks a clear frontrunner this late in the game.
After unsuccessfully taking the helm of the birther campaign, media mogul and reality TV star Trump announced Monday he would not seek the Republican nomination because he is "not ready to leave the private sector." In a statement, Trump said, "This decision does not come easily or without regret; especially when my potential candidacy continues to be validated by ranking at the top of the Republican contenders in polls across the country. I maintain the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and ultimately, the general election." [Vote now: Would Trump have won the 2012 GOP nomination?]
Trump took a beating in the polls in recent weeks and the seriousness of his campaign had been questionable. "Everybody who cares about the presidency as something other than a reality show benefits from Trump finally making his announcement," says GOP pollster Jon McHenry, whose firm would likely help former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman if he runs. But Trump's Monday announcement nonetheless gives the entire GOP field a boost. "If Trump had gone in with his financial resources and his ability to command media attention, he would have sucked all the oxygen out of the room," says Republican pollster John McLaughlin. Trump's exit could be a win for President Obama. "Trump was a one man independent expenditure on the president," says McLaughlin. "He really was focusing attention on the president's economic failure."
But Huckabee's announcement Saturday night that he would not seek the GOP nomination leaves a stronger impact on those remaining in the field. His exit opens the doors to the much coveted state of Iowa--where he won over caucus voters in 2008 and was a favorite there this year--and leaves social conservatives who flocked to the former preacher up for grabs. This is good news for a pair of Minnesota Republicans, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who are courting evangelicals and social conservatives, a valuable constituency in Iowa's nominating caucuses. "It helps those two more so than any other candidates, assuming they are both going to play particularly to the evangelicals that will vote on the Republican side," says McHenry. "It gives them a leg up by taking a strong contender out of Iowa." Bachmann, who chairs the House Tea Party Caucus, is expected to be popular in her birthplace of Iowa but has not announced whether she will run. She has 60 percent name recognition among Republicans, according to a Gallup poll, putting her ahead of Pawlenty (49 percent) and Daniels (34 percent). [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]
Pawlenty has been working on building a base on Iowa, and spent the weekend stumping there, and is expected to announce whether he is officially running within the next month. He is already laying the groundwork to capture would be Huckabee voters. "Mike and I agree our nation is facing big challenges and desperately needs new leadership, and I plan to work hard to earn the support of the millions of Americans who have supported him," said Pawlenty in a statement soon after Huckabee's announcement.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was also quick to respond. "So impressed w @mikehuckabee by putting the role of prayerfully following God's will as the most important factor, because it is," Santorum tweeted after the announcement. Santorum, thought to be the most socially conservative of the potential 2012 GOPers, could gain from picking up Huckabee voters and doing well in Iowa. "The fewer people running in Iowa, more helps Santorum," says McHenry. "He probably needs to be in the top couple in Iowa to really advance beyond that." Santorum will need Iowa to propel him to the next level because "he's not going to out raise people," says McHenry. "He's going to need the credibility from some solid placing in the early states." [See political cartoons about the Republican Party.]
But as the GOP field narrows, eyes are on Daniels who, some pollsters say, doesn't necessarily benefit from Trump and Huckabee bowing out. Whether to launch a White House bid will be "almost purely a family decision: whether he wants to put his family through the rigors of the campaign," says McHenry. For potential candidates like Daniels and Huntsman, it's "deciding if the time is right for them much more so than looking at who is in and who is out."