Et tu, Huckabee?

Preliminary responses to Mitt Romney’s withdrawal from the race for the Republican nomination seem to concur on a view of the news as a big plus for John McCain, the presumptive nominee of the party. I wonder whether that’s right, though.

At one level, I understand the logic. McCain was already fairly likely to win the nomination. With his major competitor out of the picture (along with his deep pockets), the odds of a McCain victory would seem that much higher. (I haven’t checked, but presumably the prediction markets reflect as much.)

With Romney’s departure, however, Mike Huckabee will no longer be splitting the votes of the conservative, rather virulently anti-McCain bloc of the party. Instead, he gets all of that vote. (Query, of course, whether that’s right. It might not be, if those voters are oriented more to electability than to their distaste for McCain. On the other hand, if they see McCain as a done deal anyway, why not actually vote your preferences?)

Some might shrug their shoulders: “So what if Huckabee gets all those votes?” Remember, though, that Huckabee has already won six states, even with another conservative in the race. Head-to-head against McCain and his fairly high negatives among a significant portion of Republican primary participants, who knows how he might do.

Am I suggesting that Huckabee could win the nomination? Not really. That still seems fairly unlikely, even given the winner-take-all nature of many of the Republican primaries. Rather, the question is whether McCain will need to continue to tack fairly hard to the right, in the face of an articulate, witty, populist, Southern governor. If he does, it can’t possibly help, when it comes time to face Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

At that point, he might well come to wish that Romney had stuck it out.

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