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Posted at 4:01 PM ET, 03/ 2/2011

Poll shows Huckabee with huge lead in southern states

By Rachel Weiner

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee listens to a reporter's question while talking about his new book. Getty photo by Chip Somodevilla

He's still not sure he wants to run for president, but a new poll in eleven southern states shows Mike Huckabee leading any other candidate by a huge margin.

Twenty-two percent of probable Republican voters in the poll picked the former Arkansas governor. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came in second, with 13 percent.

"It's no secret that Governor Huckabee is seriously considering a run for president in 2012 - and various poll results like this one are, quite frankly, becoming hard for the governor and his political team to ignore," said Hogan Gidley, the executive director of Huckabee's Political Action Committee and the former head of the South Carolina Republican Party.

The poll covered likely voters in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Huckabee's popularity can't be chalked up to southern loyalty -- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour gets only 1 percent of the vote. A more important factor is name recognition: Huckabee is better known all over the country than many other contenders.

The south is gaining seats in the Electoral College as a result of the 2010 census, giving the region a little more clout in the presidential race.

Huckabee has been openly ambivalent about another presidential campaign. "I'm not one who thinks the future of the world is depending on whether I run for president," he told the Post recently. He didn't like all the debates, the constant demand for more exposure. He says President Obama "is going to be much tougher to beat than people in our party think."

It would also be tough for Huckabee to win the nomination. Last time around he took heat for the tax and spending increases he instituted as governor. In today's atmosphere, with the advent of the tea party and demands for tax and spending cuts from the Republican base, those decisions will get even more harsh scrutiny. Polls like this, on the other hand, suggest that in a fragmented field he has a strong shot.

"The south has always been a stronghold for Huckabee," said pollster Scott Huffmon. "So I kind of view this as a survey of the landscape these candidates will be wading into."

Huckabee did well in the south in the last presidential race, but he lost South Carolina (the only early primary in the region) to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). This cycle, it seems that his biggest competition in the area is Gingrich -- who is also making a major play for Iowa, a state Huckabee won in 2008. But Huckabee's big problem is whether he will raise enough money and hire enough staff for a real campaign. Maybe more polls like these will encourage him to take the race seriously.

By Rachel Weiner  | March 2, 2011; 4:01 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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