Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) have all been here before and were all, at one time, rock stars with the base. But those days have waned, and their White House hopes did, too, in very different fashions.
As they look to boost their images with the grassroots base by joining the annual cattle call, all three are making early moves to reprise their presidential hopes. But to do that, they’ll need to first refine their past campaigns so version 2.0 works out better than the original.
After all, Republicans have a record of nominating candidates the second time around. Here's a rundown of what each needs to accomplish:
Huckabee: Will he pull the trigger?
After passing on the wide-open 2012 race, Huckabee is again making strong signals that he'll run in 2016. The former governor has already traveled to Iowa and South Carolina, with an April event scheduled in New Hampshire.
That travel could be another head fake, except he did end his lucrative radio contract that could have constricted his ability to run a presidential campaign. Huckabee has also led a number of recent White House polls, both in Iowa and nationally.
His CPAC speech is his latest in a string of recent addresses to the party faithful after being the headliner for the Republican National Committee's winter meeting. The speech stirred controversy for his comments that Democrats think women can’t control their libidos — but in the conservative media, Huckabee was widely defended and gained plenty of attention.
But with Huckabee’s earlier flirtations, some wonder whether he's more interested in the White House or in keeping himself relevant. He also struggled mightily with fundraising in 2008, a major factor in his falling short against Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda MORE (R-Ariz.).
Huckabee allies argue he’s serious about a run and say, if he does make it official, the folksy governor’s populist appeal would help him win. They also argue there’s a lot more interest in him running this time, as his national profile has grown.
“It’s one thing to get a staff together. It’s one thing to go to South Carolina and start to test your shtick and pick up staffers. ... It’s quite another when people travel to Little Rock, Ark., to meet with you about running for president. That has the makings of more than a campaign — that has the makings of a movement,” said Hogan Gidley, a longtime Huckabee adviser who also worked for Santorum in 2012.
Santorum: Can he recreate the magic?
The former senator was the surprise survivor against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 after an unexpected showing in the Iowa caucuses. As others flamed out against the front-runner, Santorum hung in and survived until early April. Nonetheless, many in the party view him as an also-ran who benefitted more from conservative unhappiness with Romney.
Even though the social conservative made an impressive showing, he’s still not a big buzz generator within the GOP at large. Another complication: If Huckabee runs too, they’d be competing for the same blue-collar, religious conservative coalition.
But some GOP strategists say today’s biggest stars might not be the ones who connect with the grassroots in the early-voting primaries.
“The folks we're seeing now are getting a lot of buzz; they ignite the base and are doing great work in Congress, but we're a far cry from 2016,” said Alice Stewart, who worked for both Huckabee and Santorum’s presidential campaigns as well as for Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE’s (R-Minn.). “You can't underestimate anybody that's done well in 2008 or 2012 because they've shown that they can connect with the base, connect with people. That's valuable.”
Santorum needs to show he could hold his own against the new crop of candidates and broaden his appeal past his core of social conservative supporters. The CPAC speech and its timing offer him an opportunity to do so. Santorum is also an outspoken foreign policy hawk and former Senate Armed Services Committee member, and the chaos in Ukraine gives him a chance to hit the Obama administration on a different set of issues.
“Rick … is a foreign policy guru. What better time now, with Putin grandstanding — you’re beginning to understand how important those types of accomplishments are,” said Gidley.
Perry: Move past 'Oops'
Perry is best remembered for his presidential debate fiasco, when he couldn’t remember what third government agency he wanted to close.
He’s seeking to rebuild his tarnished image with the conservative grassroots, and Texas Republicans with knowledge of his plans say he’s giving a 2016 run serious consideration.
But Perry’s “oops” moment wasn’t his only struggle in the race — he was already sinking in the polls and seeing his once-impressive fundraising slow to a trickle after a series of earlier gaffes and missteps.
While that missteps won’t disappear, since returning to office in Texas, he’s tried to remake himself as a more serious candidate, traveling to other states to woo companies to Texas, swinging by Iowa, and making recent trips to the United Kingdom and Israel and meeting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to discuss foreign policy.
Fundraising could be much more difficult this time, however.
Cruz appears likely to run and might siphon off some of Perry’s donor base, as could Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who has connections to some of the same Texas energy donors. Perry needs to show activists and donors not only that he has some appeal on energy issues, but that he’s more appealing than the others crossing the CPAC stage — a tall order.