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Will Mike Huckabee back one-time rival Mitt Romney? Add to ...

Mitt Romney has racked up by far more endorsements than any other candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, including a coveted nod from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the GOP’s reigning rock star.

But with Sunday’s move by the New Hampshire Union Leader to endorse Newt Gingrich in the state’s critical Jan. 10 primary, Mr. Romney will now need to reel in every high-powered Republican name he can.

The importance of endorsements is highly debated. But some are clearly more important than others, and the timing of an endorsement can be a critical factor in feeding a candidate’s momentum.

With only five weeks to go before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, race watchers are therefore looking to see whom former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee gets behind.

Mr. Huckabee is hosting a forum on his Saturday Fox talk show this week for the GOP candidates, so there is no chance he will come close to endorsing any candidate before then.

But his comments on the campaign after that could matter more than those of any other big name in the GOP, especially with speculation rife that Sarah Palin is preparing to endorse Mr. Gingrich.

Mr. Huckabee, who surged past Mr. Romney in Iowa in 2008, remains an influential figure in the GOP. His support for a candidate can carry weight with social conservatives, who account for a disproportionate number of the party’s Iowa caucus-goers.

Mr. Huckabee denied speculation last week that he was preparing to endorse Mr. Romney, or any candidate for that matter. But while he may stop short of formally endorsing his ex-rival, his compliments of late indicate that he is not-so-subtly boosting Mr. Romney’s candidacy.

Much was made of the bad blood between Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee during the 2008 campaign. But the rivalry was to be expected, given that the survival of each of their candidacies depended on a strong showing in Iowa. Mr. Romney plunged $10-million into winning the tiny state’s caucuses only to be beat 34 per cent to 25 per cent by Mr. Huckabee.

But the signs are adding up that Mr. Huckabee is warming to Mr. Romney. After inviting Mr. Romney onto his own Fox News show last month – giving Mr. Romney a friendly platform to explain his conversion to social conservatism – Mr. Huckabee jumped to Mr. Romney’s defence on the network earlier this month.

“Ronald Reagan was pro-choice at one point in his life and then became pro-life, as did George H.W. Bush,” Mr. Huckabee said in rationalizing Mr. Romney’s views on abortion. “So it's not uncommon for people to change a position. It's problematic for Romney, he's always going to have to explain not just what position he takes but why he moved in that direction, but there's flattery here for Mitt Romney.”

There can be no higher praise among modern Republicans than to have one’s name uttered favourably in the same sentence as Mr. Reagan.

Last week, Mr. Huckabee made something of a plea to the rank-and-file, when asked by a conservative radio host about the suggestion that Tea Party conservatives could sit out the 2012 election if Mr. Romney gets the GOP nomination.

“It would be real tragic if they stayed out because Mitt Romney may not be their first choice,” he said. “Mitt Romney every day of the week and twice on Sunday is going to be a much more effective president for issues that they care about than Barack Obama.”

Mr. Romney will need all the help he can get in Iowa, now that his lock on the New Hampshire primary threatens to loosen somewhat with the Union Leader’s backing of Mr. Gingrich. While the paper has a history of endorsing ideologically-pure underdogs – from Steve Forbes to Pat Buchanan – its backing can make a difference.

In 2008, its endorsement may have rescued John McCain’s candidacy from the ditch. Mr. McCain came a miserable fourth in the Iowa caucuses. As New York Times stats master Nate Silver noteshowever, his support in New Hampshire more than doubled after the Union Leader got behind him.

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