Mike Huckabee might want to dig out those presidential yard signs.
The economy is the top concern for Southerners, who remain unhappy with President Barack Obama's stewardship of it, according to a Winthrop Poll being released today.
That adults in South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia disapprove of Obama's prescriptions for the ailing economy should surprise no one. He won only three of those Southern states -- Florida, North Carolina and Virginia -- in capturing the presidency in 2008.
But with the 2012 campaign about to get revved up, the South's steadfast disapproval of the Democratic president shows he has not expanded his base of support in the region. That leaves open the door to GOP opponents including Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor whose bid to capture the Republican presidential nomination failed in 2008.
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Scott Huffmon, an associate professor of political science at Winthrop University and the director of the poll, said Huckabee's performance in the poll is not that surprising. "He always had a strong base of support here in the South," Huffmon said of Huckabee.
But the picture is not pretty for the incumbent president:
64 percent of Southern adults surveyed told Winthrop's pollsters the country is on the wrong track
58 percent said they disapprove of the president's handling of the economy.
Looking ahead to 2012, about 22 percent of probable Republican primary voters singled out Huckabee as their top choice to take on Obama.
Huckabee received nearly twice as much support in the poll as the No. 2 GOP candidate named, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Huckabee far out-stripped the support given former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP's 2008 vice presidential nominee, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who also sought the GOP's presidential nomination in 2008.
Other polls taken in 2009 and last year have shown Huckabee, an ordained minister who was Arkansas governor from 1996 to 2007, is among the early front-runners in what could be a crowded GOP field. A Rasmussen poll, conducted in January, showed Huckabee got as much support -- 43 percent -- as Obama in a hypothetical matchup. A CNN poll taken last fall showed Huckabee would defeat the president.
However, Huckabee's 2008 bid for the GOP nomination failed, in large part, because he could not raise the money needed to keep his campaign afloat. Some political observers wonder if, this time around, he will be able to raise the money and hire the professional staff needed to mount an expensive, arduous presidential campaign.
Huckabee has yet to say if he is running, but he has hired Hogan Gidley, former executive director of the S.C. Republican Party, to direct his political action committee, Huck PAC. That hiring is notable because of the importance of South Carolina's first-in-the-South GOP primary and Gidley's connections in the Palmetto State, where the eventual GOP nominee always has won the Republican presidential primary.
Despite Huckabee's showing, Huffmon said the door is not closed on other GOP aspirants.
"Right now, forced to choose, Huckabee is the choice," he said. "But that doesn't mean someone else can't surge."
The economy was a major issue in the 2008 presidential race, and, 19 months before the next election, it remains a central focus, the Winthrop poll found.
So-called "right-track/wrong-track" poll questions often are scrutinized intensely as a barometer of voter feelings, and the news there is not good for Obama.
Not only do 64 percent of Southerners polled think the country is on the wrong track, more than three-quarters of those who identified themselves as independents share that view.
The poll showed that independents, always an important bloc, increasingly are unhappy about the direction of the country. in November 2009, a Winthrop Poll of Southerners showed 58 percent of independents -- roughly 20 percentage points lower than now -- thought the country was on the wrong track.
Ann Funderburk, a 72-year-old respiratory therapist from Eastover, was one of those surveyed in the poll.
Funderburk said she normally votes for the Republican candidate in presidential elections. But she doesn't blame Obama for all the nation's woes. "There are a lot of factors that didn't start with the president," she said. "I can't blame everything on the president."
Instead, Funderburk sees the country's primary problem as maddeningly simple: "Everybody's asking for something for nothing, and that's so frustrating for me."
Funderburk said she would like to hear more about former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the top choice of 5.5 percent of likely GOP primary voters in the Winthrop Poll.
"I'm not going to vote for somebody just because they're a Republican," she said. "They need to touch my values, which I guess are Southern values."
Some highlights from the Winthrop Poll of 825 respondents in 11 Southern states. (The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 3.41 percent.)
While a majority of Southerners are unhappy with President Obama's performance, they are even less happy with Congress. More than 65 percent of those polled said they disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. Think that's a statement of displeasure with prominent Democrats in Congress such as former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? Perhaps not. The poll was taken between Feb. 21 and Feb. 27 - after Republicans had captured the U.S. House and reduced the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. Even after that sea change, 65 percent of Republicans said they disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job.
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh might be blasting first lady Michelle Obama as a fat hypocrite, but the Winthrop Poll showed Southerners do not fully share his aversion to her. Just under 41 percent of those polled said they have a favorable view of the first lady; about 20 percent said they have an unfavorable view of her.
Wonder what's up with the continued calls for the repeal of the health care legislation signed into law by President Obama? Well, there's gold in them thar calls - at least in the South. A majority, 52.5 percent, said they disapprove of the president's handling of health care policy. Almost 79 percent of Democrats approve of the president's handling of health care policy, but big majorities of Republicans - 70.7 percent - and independents - 64.2 percent -- disapprove of the president's health care policy.
A ticket of U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour might be a dream team for some conservative Republicans and Tea Party members. But those candidates would have some work to do in the South. Barbour and Bachmann were the top choice of a combined 2.1 percent of probable Republican primary voters. "Other" was the top choice of 2.4 percent. The leaders? Huckabee at 21.9 percent, Gingrich at 12.9 percent, Palin at 8.7 percent, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 7.6 percent, Romney at 6.9 percent, Pawlenty at 6.2 percent and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 5.8 percent.