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Why Huckabee, Carson and Fiorina Will Matter

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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None of the three candidates who joined the Republican presidential contest last week -- Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson -- will win the nomination.

That's the view of politically smart strategists who nevertheless say that all three, especially Huckabee, could play important roles in shaping the race.

First, here's why these latest entries are unlikely to prevail. The Republican coalition has three pillars, all relatively conservative: economic, national security and social issues. A candidate has to be acceptable to at last two of the three. At this stage, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and perhaps Rand Paul of Kentucky make the grade.

Huckabee doesn't. The populist Baptist preacher, former Arkansas governor and talk-show host is adored by the social right, hated by economic conservatives and isn't respected by many national security hawks. Moreover, there's skepticism about his ability to raise the funds to go the distance. In 2008, after winning the initial Iowa caucuses, he lacked the resources to compete through the nominating process. There's a general sense that 2012 was his time. He passed.

Carson, a prominent physician, and Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, are political novices. Neither has ever been elected to office. The supposed appeal of nonpoliticians in America is superficial.

In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last week, almost 70 percent said they would be uncomfortable with a presidential candidate who lacks previous experience in government.

Carson and Fiorina, both cancer survivors, have appealing narratives. Carson's resume is more impressive: He is one of the world's most renowned pediatric neurosurgeons. (He once operated on our son.) Fiorina was fired as CEO of Hewlett-Packard and generally gets negative reviews for her performance.

The possible import of Carson, who espouses a hard right line and has attracted a following in places such as Iowa, is that movement conservatives account for half the vote in several early contests. Walker and Rubio could get a small slice of those votes, as will Paul, whose basic appeal is to libertarians. 

More than 40 percent of the vote likely will go to a movement right aspirant. In 2012, the Iowa caucus was won with 24 percent of the vote, in a smaller and less capable field.

The difference between Carson getting 5 percent and 10 percent may well decide if one of the movement right candidates tops 20 percent, which could be first place.

The top two right-wing candidates are Huckabee and Cruz. A no-holds-barred debate between these tough customers, similar in ideology, vastly different in style, would be worthy of Las Vegas. Cruz, a brilliant lawyer and champion debater, would assail Huckabee as a tax-increasing governor who commuted the sentences of hardened criminals, including one who went on to commit murder.

The folksy and fiery Huckabee could attack the Texas senator for supporting President Barack Obama on free trade and for his ties to Wall Street and the Republican donor class.

Fiorina's background as a corporate executive probably is better preparation for politics than brain surgery. She's unlikely to make embarrassing gaffes like Carson's recent charge, which he later retracted, that people enter prison as heterosexuals and leave gay.

Elements of the Republican establishment welcome Fiorina's candidacy. In a field that keeps getting bigger, she's the only woman and the party has a gender problem. She's a willing attack dog against Hillary Clinton.

Yet if she ever does better than the point or two that she scores in current polls, it would likely be at the expense an establishment type such as Bush.

In the most wide open Republican race in the past half century, there are no certainties, and maybe even no likelihoods. A year from now it's improbable we'll look back on the events of the past week as seminal, but they may affect how the race looks then.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net