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Mike Huckabee bets big on difficult 2016 journey

The former governor and Fox News host could enter the 2016 race as the Iowa frontrunner, but his critics on the right see a host of vulnerabilities.

After ending the year with a burst of Jeb-mentum, 2015 began Saturday with an eruption of Huck-mania. 

Mike Huckabee became the latest top-tier presidential hopeful to publicly announce he was weighing a run over the weekend. It was not a light decision. In order to explore his campaign options he had to abandon his lucrative Fox News show, a decision he announced on-air Saturday.

"There's been a great deal of speculation as to whether I would run for president,” Huckabee said. “And if I were willing to absolutely rule that out, I could keep doing this show. But I can't make such a declaration.”

As far as candidates go, Huckabee may be the most combustible in the field. His unique strengths demand attention from his rivals: a warm connection with evangelicals, a longstanding relationship with Fox News viewers, and an impressive performance in 2008 on a shoestring budget. Ask Republican strategists to name his weaknesses, however, and the list is as long as any top tier candidate’s: weak fundraising, clashes with conservative groups on fiscal issues, some dicey positions on key tea party issues, and a history of scandals that could come back to haunt him. 

"The field he ran against in 2008 is going to be markedly different than in 2016."'

The conversation around Huckabee begins with Iowa. Huckabee, a Baptist minister-turned-Arkansas governor, dominated the state’s make-or-break evangelical vote en route to a dark horse win over John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008. Thanks to his Fox News show, they haven’t forgotten him either. Iowa Republicans have identified him as their top choice for president in nearly every poll over the last year. 

It’s early in the cycle, though, and Huckabee knows from his own come-from-behind victory that the polls can change in a hurry once campaign season heats up. The odds are high the former governor will face significantly stronger competition than he did during his last run. In 2008, the field was devoid of obvious rivals for evangelical and Southern support as Huckabee contended with libertine Rudy Giuliani, maverick John McCain, and formerly pro-choice Mitt Romney. Only former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson gave him trouble, splitting support in crucial South Carolina, which became his Waterloo. 

In 2016, though, everyone from Ted Cruz to Rand Paul to Ben Carson could battle him for caucus-goers. And his executive experience may be less of a draw in a field that may feature as many as a half-dozen governors, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Mike Pence. 

“The field he ran against in 2008 is going to be markedly different than in 2016,” Craig Schoenfeld, who headed up New Gingrich’s Iowa campaign in 2012, told msnbc. 

One candidate who would naturally overlap with Huckabee is Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucus in 2012 utilizing a similar mix of social conservatism and blue-collar populist rhetoric. 

Santorum is set to meet with advisers this week about his presidential plans and John Brabender, a top strategist for the former Senator, told msnbc that the 2012 runner-up is “seriously looking at [a run].” Polls suggest Huckabee would drink Santorum’s milkshake with evangelicals, but Brabender already has some creative ideas as to how the senator might turn the tables. 

"The challenge Huckabee will have is that he'll have to defend his position on Common Core, his immigration legislation as governor, and he doesn’t have much foreign policy experience as a governor,” Brabender said. “Economically, he's going to have some things he did as governor that are a challenge."

He may be onto something. Like Bush, Huckabee has chastised conservatives for railing against Common Core education standards, which have become toxic among tea party conservatives, and his support for allowing young undocumented immigrants to stay in America could make the right uncomfortable as well. The anti-tax group Club For Growth barely waited a full day after Huckabee’s Fox News announcement before renewing old attacks over tax increases he signed as governor. 

“As Mike Huckabee weighs the pros and cons of a second presidential candidacy, he should know that the Club for Growth PAC will make sure that Republican primary voters thoroughly examine his exceptionally poor record of raising taxes and spending as governor,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement.

Liz Mair, a GOP strategist who advised Rick Perry in 2012, brought up Huckabee’s battles with the state’s Ethics Commission as governor, which evaluated 14 complaints against him and admonished him in five cases. A much darker liability emerged only after his presidential run. In 2009, a prisoner he granted clemency to as governor murdered four policemen in Parkland, Washington.

“Folks who have spent time in Arkansas politics and journalism routinely talk about ethical problems that have plagued him; those will be extremely easily uncovered and probably discussed more than Huckabee wants,” Mair told msnbc. 

Huckabee’s strong credibility with social conservatives could help provide a buffer against attacks on his record from the right. He may need to tread into politically dangerous territory to keep the base riled up, however. In the few years since his last ran for office, gay marriage has gone from hot button issue to quiet inevitability. A number of Republicans have sunk their careers with the wrong sound bite on issues like abortion, rape, and birth control.

"Folks who have spent time in Arkansas politics and journalism routinely talk about ethical problems that have plagued him."'

Huckabee has not always handled this dynamic gracefully. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus publicly rebuked him after he told a crowd that “[t]he Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido.”

To Mair, comments like these are a red flag.

“His base may love some of the things he's likely to say, but there's a significant probability that everyone else once again concludes he's an insufficiently serious person to be allowed to win the nomination,” she said.

Alice Stewart, a spokesman for Huckabee, declined to directly rebut his critics, saying his team was “focusing ... this week on doing what we need to do to lay the groundwork for him to make the best decision.”

“He’s been consistent on the issues, he’s strong on the issues that people are concerned with, and that’s why he did so well in 2008,” Stewart added. “He’s shown that he has tremendous appeal.”